British Telecom believes it owns a 14 year US patent for the World Wide Web's hyperlink technology and has hired an intellectual property specialist to ensure it can commercialise the patent, in court if necessary.
Buried amongst 15,000 global patents, BT claims it discovered its lapse during a routine update of its intellectual property. Hyperlinks are used to connect to other words, pages or pictures on the Internet and are central to its operation.
If the find is upheld, BT could be given the go ahead to pursue money from American ISPs -- a tactic it has already initiated.
"It is regrettable that we weren't involved in the Net from the ground up," explains a spokesman. "What we are looking to do is charge US ISPs for using our intellectual property, that is fair."
But British Telecom's vision of what is fair is bound to meet with fierce resistance across the pond, where Internet legislation is increasingly frequent. "There is no doubt this will lead to a massive battle in America," says Robin Bynoe, Net expert with London law firm Charles Russell.
Bynoe is not convinced that, even if BT does own the patent, that it can sue for infringement. "Just because there is a patent doesn't mean it is for what they [BT] say it's for. You can bet that if BT does go for this in the courts, they will meet major litigation. They need to think about that."
And BT cannot afford more PR shame: recently the company published the names and personal details of customers who had signed up for its ADSL offering. Many of those customers are seeking recourse through Oftel and trading standards bodies. Its rollout of unmetered access in the UK has been overshadowed by rows and campaigns accusing the telco of greed and acting in the interests of its shareholders rather than the general public.
"Yet again," says an ISP who requested anonymity, "we see the ugly head of BT's greedy self emerge to frown at users who are not lining its pockets. This really is going too far and I expect them to suffer badly at the hands of the press and the users of the Net both here and in America."
Scipher, the specialist helping BT with the patent application, did not return calls at press time.
More details on this story throughout the week.
BT's attempt to claim a patent on a hyperlink is just one of many bits of nostalgia which the corporation is trying to get credit for inventing. Guy Kewney is incredulous at the brass neck of BT. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.
Has BT shot itself in the foot again? Hit the TalkBack button and have your say online.
Should BT make American ISPs pay for using hyperlink technology? Tell the Mailroom