BT’s Dead Letter

Back in 1993, before the web was spun, when I was still a regular at Comdex, there was a very entertaining controversy.

Compton New Media, a CD-ROM publisher, had just been bought by the Tribune Co. It claimed a patent on all multimedia and began demanding royalties.

We in the press corps treated the whole thing as a joke, but Compton’s competitors were sweating through their Gucci loafers. Virtually everyone in the multimedia world would be impacted – everyone from cable outfits to creators of authoring software.

Needless to say, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The patent office took another look and (surprise) issued another ruling a year later rejecting all the patent claims. After much economic travail, Compton’s was eventually sold to The Learning Co., which in turn crashed the Mattel Corp. But that’s another story from another industry.

The point is that overly broad patents are nonsense. They make you an object of ridicule, and deservedly so. They’re eventually rejected.

Flash forward to the year 2000. British Telecom, which has made a distinct hash of its efforts on the Internet, is now claiming its 1977 patent gives it control of all hyperlinks. The company has written to 17 major U.S. ISPs demanding royalty payments.

The Compton patent was eventually ruled invalid because of prior art, and the BT patent claims will fall for the same reason.

In 1945, Vannever Bush wrote a now-famous article, “As We May Think,” for the Atlantic Monthly. Dr. Bush had coordinated about 6,000 American scientists in their application of science to warfare.

The paper described the world we now live in. He complained that indexing systems were hampering our ability to learn and proposed a new device, a “memex.” Utilizing this, a researcher could build his own trail through mounds of material; a trail that could then be followed by others.

About thirty years later, Ted Nelson wrote two books, “Computer Lib” and “Dream Machines.” They were bound together and described what he called “Project Xanadu,” “a screen in your home from which you can see into the world’s hypertext libraries.” Notice how freely he used the word “hypertext.” In 1960, Nelson had coined the term and described what he sought to do with it.

Xanadu itself had too many features. For one thing, it protected versioning and copyright. It’s about 25 years of where the web is now in many areas. Autodesk finally released a version of it in the mid 1990s, and it’s now open source. Its history is well worth reading.

In other words, British Telecom’s claims for its patent are nonsense. The prior art on it goes back 30 years before its researcher hit the patent office. Even if the patent were valid, it described just one form of hypertext, not the one implemented by Tim Berners-Lee in his 1989 paper.

The whole thing is a joke. These guys are claiming the web was misfiled by the British Post Office for 25 years and should not exist. The patent claim is the ultimate dead letter.

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