Friday, October 15, 2010

Frivolous Patents on the Web

Seal of the USPTOThe history of the web is littered with unexpected patent claims that feel frivolous to nearly all. These are driven partly by a terrible system for reviewing and awarding patents and a litigious society that sustains a business model of lawsuits in the hopes that some will just pay.

The latest example involves a company called Webvention attempting to claim an $80,000 license fee from Novartis for using hyperlinked rollover images on a web site. To be clear, this isn't exactly a new idea. And the patent itself is painfully general. Because Webvention went for a large company, that company has the resources to fight it. Read the full article at ars technica: Rollover image on your website? That will be $80,000 (please)

A History of Frivolity

If you are new to the web, perhaps you didn't know about about other patent infringement lawsuits — ones that others have long since forgotten. For a little context I've included information about a few (this is not an exhaustive list) so you can see for yourself that the trend isn't dying, but the lawsuits aren't holding up. In short, you probably don't need to worry.

Unisys GIF Patent

Way back in the early days of the web, Unisys attempted to assert its claim to the LZW compression method used in the GIF iamge file format, at the time the most popular format on the early web and online providers. Ultimately this led to the development of the PNG format which, while a compelling format, doesn't have the footprint on the web that GIF has, even nearly a decade on.

Overture Search

Overture went after Google and other search engines under the claim the keyword bidding model used for paid search engine placement was a violation of Overture's search patent. This "business method patent," as they have come to be known have included others like the Amazon 1-click ordering process.

British Telecom and Hyperlinks

British Telecom went after ISPs by looking for license fees for hosting web pages that contained hyperlinks. Prodigy successfully fended off the lawsuit, probably in part by pointing out a hypertext system dating back to 1962.

Eolas Targets Plug-ins

The University of California apparently came up with the concept of browser plug-ins, sold the license to that patent to Eolas, and Eolas turned around and sued Microsoft for patent infringement. Plug-in manufacturers quickly started offering workarounds to the way plug-ins are embedded. The developer community was in such an uproar that the W3C even formed an advisory group to address it. Once the USPTO issued a rejection of all claims, the W3C folded up the group and Microsoft was not required to make any changes.

Images as Hyperlinks

Apparently convinced their approach is vastly different from what British Telecom tried to enforce, Singapore-based Vuestar has been invoicing companies for using images as hyperlinks, a violation of its patent. Given that the patent was filed in 2001, there is about a decade of prior art that makes this about as frivolous as they come.

How This Affects Progress

When you look at even this abbreviated history, it's easy to understand why the video codec H.264, initially considered to be the next standard for web video, has undergone such an assault of late. Because the patents for H.264 are held by the MPEG-LA consortium, and because the browser makers are taking different approaches to implementing it based on license fears, it has been dumped from the HTML5 specification. HTML5 is now silent on codecs for video and audio elements. Take a few minutes to read up...

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