BT has said it wants US Internet service providers to pay for their customers' rights to use hyperlinks in Web sites, because the British telco claims that it invented them.
In an unusual move, BT has hired intellectual property licensing firm QED, part of UK technology licensing company Scipher, to recover the unpaid licence fees from the hundreds of Web sites that use hyperlinks. A hyperlink is an element of a Web page a user clicks on to access another page or site.
BT said the patent dates back to its early networking days, with its Viewdata online services, including Prestel. The telco said it applied for the patent with the US Patent Office in 1976, but didn't receive it until 1989.
Now the telco wants money from organisations using hyperlinks until the patent expires in 2006. Its patents on hyperlinks in other countries have already expired.
A BT spokesman said getting fees from everyone in the US using hyperlinks would be impossible. "It's not practical to licence every Internet user - it would be nonsensical, so we're approaching ISPs to talk about licensing," said the spokesman. He confirmed that BT was seeking money from the ISPs.
"We only want what is fair," the spokesman said, citing the high patent licence fees enjoyed by other major technology companies. IBM receives over $1bn a year from licencees of its intellectual property.
Hyperlinks are used extensively across the Internet and BT's mission is going to prove difficult to implement.
Tim Pearson, a council member of the ISP Association in the UK, said patent laws are outdated. "It doesn't surprise me that this is crawling out of the woodwork because we've seen a general increase in the aggressive use of patents," he said.
Pearson said BT should pursue Web site owners, rather than ISPs who, he said, are only responsible for hosting content, rather than creating it. "I don't think BT will win itself many friends though," he added.
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