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BT mulls adverse ruling over hyperlink patent

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BT's legal battle with US ISP Prodigy over the telco's claim that it owns the patent to hyperlinks received a knock yesterday, following an initial ruling by a US Federal Court.

According to reports, Judge Colleen McMahon ruled that the patent - filed in 1976 and granted in 1989 - might not actually cover what we know today as "hyperlinks".

A spokesman for BT said that its lawyers were currently looking over the complex and lengthy document and were unlikely to comment on the case until next week.

Reuters claims that Prodigy is considering a motion to get the case dismissed.

Of course, it's still too early to say what will happen between now and September, when the case is due to be heard in full.

It all depends on whether BT has the appetite for a legal battle that could end in humiliating defeat.

But even if it does win the case the telco might not prove to be a popular winner. The damage caused by an unpopular ruling may be more costly to its reputation than any royalties it manages to extract from US ISPs.

And with a new senior management team leading BT who weren't around in 2000, when the company first said it would pursue the claim, it's possible that the telco might just decide to cut its losses and walk away.

Hidden Page

In June 2000 BT said that it owned the patent to hyperlinks and wanted ISPs in the US to cough up cash for the privilege of using them.

It pointed to patent 4,873,662 which refers to its "Hidden Page" technology.

The patent reads: "Information for display at a terminal apparatus of a computer is stored in blocks the first part of which contains the information which is actually displayed at the terminal and the second part of which contains information relating to the display and which may be used to influence the display at the time or in response to a keyboard entry signal.

"For example, the second part of the block could include information for providing the complete address of an another block which would be selected by the operation of a selected key of the keyboard. The second part of the block could alternatively influence the format and/or color of the display at the terminal.

"When a block is read from the store of the computer the second part is retained in another store which may be located in the terminal or in the computer itself or perhaps both. The invention is particularly useful in reducing the complexity of the operating protocol of the computer."

Despite much criticism and - from some quarters - derision, BT pursued its claim and in December 2000 filed a case against Prodigy in New York State.

Prodigy said the case was "blatant and shameless". ®

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