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Last week Microsoft was granted an ancient patent claim covering the navigation of web pages by keyboard. According to US Patent 6,785,865 (Discoverability and navigation of hyperlinks via tabs - Cote et al), the practice of tabbing through hyperlinks on a web page now belongs to Microsoft. The claim was filed more than seven years ago, in March 1997.

"A user may press a tab key to discover and navigate to a first hyperlink that is part of a hypertext document. The first hyperlink is, in response, given focus and a focus shape is drawn around the text or graphics for the hot region of the hyperlink. If the user again presses the tab key, the next hyperlink is given focus and a focus shape (i.e., an outline that surrounds the next hyperlink) is drawn around the next hyperlink," we learn from the abstract.

But the focus shape doesn't have to be a rectangle. Redmond's Brains Trust must have been burning the midnight oil back then at the height of the browsers wars, as the filing also claims ownership of circular (claim 7), polygonal (claim 8) focus shapes too.

The filing lists twenty five references dating back to 1994.

Last year Microsoft hired Marshall Phelps, the executive who founded IBM's billion dollar IP licensing program in the 1980s. Phelps told a legal conference last year that "You don't just get patents for the sake of getting patents," shortly before he joined Microsoft. Redmond launched its first ever IP licensing initiative last December, offering the rights to use the FAT file system to device manufacturers. Microsoft's right to hold the FAT patents is being re-examined by the US Patent and Trademarks Office, after a challange citing prior art by a public-interest organization.

Ironically, in July an appeals court ruled that Microsoft had no right to hold patents on ergonomic keyboard design, which the company contests. ®

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