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Habeas, a start-up which embeds haikus in email headers to certify messages are from opt-in lists and not spam, has clinched its first deal in Europe.

Netherlands-based ISP Villa Hosting has adopted the Habeas Sender Warranted Email service to improve its ability to distinguish between genuine email and spam.

John Caspers, chief executive of Villa Hosting, said the ISP is finding software filters designed to block spam are also capturing opt-in mail and legitimate commercial email by mistake because they share some of the same characteristics. "Habeas gives us an effective tool to distinguish legitimate mail from spam."

Habeas' patent-pending service works by trademarking and copyrighting a unique set of lines, known as the warrant mark, which is embedded in the headers of outgoing email. Included is a haiku, a 17-syllable Japanese poem.

Copyright offers legal protection to the poetry. Trademark offers legal protection to other parts of the email header.

Free to individuals and ISPs, enterprises pay an annual licence fee for the Habeas service. Commercial bulk email providers sending verified permission mailings pay based on the volume of their mail.

Habeas customers include Microsoft's WebTV division and Outblaze, a Hong Kong-based outsourcer for large e-mail service providers. The company began operations last month.

Spammers who improperly use the Habeas warrant mark can be prosecuted under international trademark and copyright law. Habeas can seek penalties of $1 million and more, shut down offenders through injunction, and in severe cases refer them for criminal prosecution.

That's the theory. Unfortunately, experience has shown the law to be an uncertain, and slow moving means to shut down spammers. Also spammers who make no attempt to forge the Habeas warrant mark will still be able to get their email through to the vast majority of potential victims.

Habeas' service only deals with a small part of the spamming problem, enabling opt-in email lists to identify their content as wanted, and getting around the problem of false positives with automatic spam filters.

Still, unlike the TRUSTe scheme, which aimed to create a "trusted sender" program to assure customers that they won't get ripped off when they respond to email offers, Habeas service may make life harder for spammers while ensuring people get the email they requested.

And, to its credit, Habeas says the spam-killing Haiku complements, rather than replaces, popular desktop or server-level spam filtering solutions, and services from the likes of Spamhaus Project (which help ISPs battle unwanted email by maintaining lists of Internet sites that spam). ®

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