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Early ruling close in BT hyperlink case

Amid concerns that jurors will struggle to cope with the language of BT's patent, Judge Colleen McMahon is tipped to deliver her preliminary ruling any day now
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

BT's contentious claim that it owns the rights to the hyperlink is nearing a crucial stage in its journey through the US legal process.

Legal experts predict that a preliminary ruling in the case of British Telecommunications vs Prodigy could arrive as early as this week. This is an opportunity for Judge Colleen McMahon -- who oversaw the preliminary hearing of the case in a New York federal court in February -- to rule whether BT's lawyers have produced sufficient evidence for the case to be heard by a higher court.

A trial date of 15 September has already been set, but it is possible that the content of Judge McMahon's ruling could encourage one side to back down. Judge McMahon has already expressed doubts that a jury would be able to fully understand the highly technical nature of BT's case.

BT is claiming that a patent request it filed in 1976, and was granted in 1989, gives it ownership of the hyperlink -- the method by which Internet surfers move between Web pages. This patent refers to "an information handling system in which information is derived from a computer at a remote point and transmitted via the public telephone network to terminal apparatus."

After discovering the patent in 2000, BT failed to persuade 17 American Internet Service Providers to buy a licence that would permit their customers to use hyperlinks. BT then launched its case against Prodigy, one of the largest US ISPs.

This court case will determine whether BT's patent actually does grant it ownership of the Web hyperlink. Critics of the case claim there are several examples of "prior art" -- evidence that the technology existed before 1976.

Gregory Aharonian, editor of the Internet Patent News Service, has said he believes that several research papers from the 1960s will "come back to haunt BT's efforts." One of these papers was on a hypertext editing system for the IBM 360, delivered at the Illinois Conference on Computer Graphics in 1968, which showed how "any text structures may be (linked) in arbitrary ways, and the user may jump along connections in this linkage structure."

Aharonian also points to a video of a demonstration delivered by Douglas C. Engelbart, who had been working with a group of 17 researchers in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. In a live demonstration of the online system called NLS, which the researchers had been working on since 1962, Englebart demonstrated the ability of NLS to jump between levels in the architecture of a text, making cross-references, creating internal linking and live hyperlinks within a file.

BT, however, insists that it is only trying to protect its intellectual property. Despite the negative publicity it has attracted, chairman Sir Christopher Bland has insisted that BT will pursue the case through the courts.

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