Will patent disputes spoil the Web's success?

Open standards have been responsible for a large part of the Web's growth and success. But that hasn't stopped a number of vendors from trying to make some Web technologies their own using the patent process.
Written by Adrian Mello, Contributor
The growth and success of the Internet and the Web demonstrate how successful open standards can be to create rapidly adopted, broadly available, and extremely useful technology applications.

But open standards--as we have come to know them--are under threat. That's because some technology vendors are trying to corral parts of the Web that most people believe are openly available standards by filing for patents and then twisting the arms of other companies to pay up or recognize those patents.

Amazon.com's lawsuit against rival e-commerce site Barnesandnoble.com is probably the best-known Web patent dispute. In the suit, Amazon charged that Barnesandnoble.com had infringed on its patent by duplicating its 1-Click technology--a process that lets users skip several steps during checkout by presetting credit card and shipping information. Many people protested the suit because they did not believe the technology was innovative enough to justify a patent. The suit was recently settled but details of the settlement have not been disclosed.

In some cases, vendors try to enforce their patents long after they've been awarded. In 1989, British Telecommunications was awarded a patent in the United States for a linking technology that it claims applies to hyperlinks. However, BT waited more than a decade to enforce the patent, partly because it didn't know it existed until it was discovered in a routine patent examination. A recent ruling in a U.S. district court seems to lay a basis for rejecting BT's claim because the company's patent refers to use of the technology on a central computer rather than the Internet's distributed architecture.

Unisys also waited more than 10 years before trying to enforce its patent on GIF--the Web's most commonly used graphics file format. Although the patent for GIF was awarded in 1985, it wasn't until 1999 that Unisys began asking companies such as Yahoo and Disney to start paying for its use. As a result, some Web sites have considered alternative file formats to GIF such as PNG. Unisys's patent expires in the United States in 2003.

Vendors' attempts to enforce Web patents can delay and confuse the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)--a collective that attempts to create and promulgate standards that improve the growth and versatility of the Web.

The W3C was concerned that Intermind might begin charging licensing fees for a patent it held on a technology that lets online computers automatically transmit information to other Web users. The W3C warned that this might deter companies from supporting Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), a standard designed to let users control the transfer of their personal information. According to W3C Patent Policy Working Group Chairman Danny Weitzner, the claim resulted in the W3C's first legal battle and set the standardization process back almost a year.

The work of the W3C has also been complicated by the mixed agendas of its powerful members. At the time the W3C was trying to create two publicly available standards for style sheets, Microsoft was granted a patent for a similar technology. Microsoft was an active participant in the W3C process for both standards. "They knew W3C was doing something on it because they were an active participant on it," says Steve Telleen, vice president at the Giga Information Group. "If they are going to play in the standards field they shouldn't be pursuing a patent." Microsoft announced that it would not charge royalties for the patented technology, but Telleen believes this is a mixed message that can have a chilling effect. Microsoft could always change its mind and enforce the patent.

As the Web continues to grow and add functionality, patents could have an even greater impact on its evolution. The development of Web services certainly ups the ante because of the technology's significance to the enterprise market. Patent filings and disputes may play the role of spoiler as vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and others simultaneously attempt to promote standards while competing for commercial advantage.

Do you think that open standards on the Web are becoming a thing of the past? Share your thoughts in TalkBack.

Adrian Mello, Tech Update's e-business columnist, has covered the technology business for nearly two decades and is a former editor-in-chief of Line56, Macworld, and Upside. David Berlind contributed reporting to this story.

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