US company claims millions over site-nav patent

Even simple navigation on your Web site could cost you thousands in fees, if a new patent claim holds up

Every Web site that uses a common form of site navigation could be hit for thousands or millions of dollars in licence fees, claims a US company holding a patent on the idea. SBC Communications, a major American telco and ISP, says that it owns the right to links that stay visible on the page during navigation -- and wants up to 5 percent of company revenue annually as a licence fee.

In an email sent to the site www.museumtour.com, SBC said "... your site includes several selectors or tabs that... seem to reside in their own frame or part of the user interface. [These] appear to infringe several issued claims in our patent." The company also included a schedule of fees, which show that the 'base rate' for licensing for a company with a $100,000 (£62,000) turnover is $5,270 (£3,300) a year, rising to $16m for a $10bn company.

"What they are patenting is the entire process of structuring documents for the Web, something that has been done since the advent of the Web in the early nineties," said Web application developer DJ Walker-Morgan. "They must know that they have a vague and challengeable patent; what other reason would they go after small companies like museumtours, and not after Amazon, AOL or Microsoft."

The US patent in question, number 5,933,841 and titled "Structured Document Browser" was issued in 1999 and hasn't been tested in court. It is part of patent law that 'prior art', where the patented idea was previously published, can invalidate a patent. However, ascertaining the validity of a patent is a costly and lengthy affair, and if it holds then SBC stands to claim licence fees from virtually every company in the US that puts links in frames on their Web sites.

The last major patent attack on the Web was by BT, which claimed a year ago that it held the intellectual rights to hyperlinks themselves and was thus due substantial licence fees. That went to court and got thrown out quite quickly, in part because it pre-dated the Web and thus talked of 'pressing selected keys on a keyboard' to activate links, whereas users these days use mice.


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