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Hyperlinks: Why BT may be right but is still so wrong

The web isn't a web without links...
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor on

The web isn't a web without links...

Rummaging through the empty cardboard boxes and assorted junk that escaped the last trip to the dump something catches your eye in the gloom of the attic. It's a complete set of china you haven't seen since your grandparents passed it on to an ungrateful and younger you many years ago. Dusty, it may be, but it looks in pretty good shape. Nevertheless, it's hardly an heirloom. Or so you think. A couple of informed conversations later, however, and it turns out what you've found is almost certainly original Wedgewood and, if sold, would go a long way to paying off your mortgage. Just like you, BT made a lucky discovery recently and, just like you, BT is hoping to cash in. But while your news is greeted with goodwill and a jokey 'You lucky sod', BT is likely to find itself short of friends in its quest to secure its fortune. BT will be in a New York courtroom - crumpled patent in hand - today out to show it owns perhaps the most ubiquitous piece of technology on the internet today. BT's 'Hidden Page' patent dates back to work carried out developing the Prestel text system in the mid-1970s. Hidden Page is akin (identical, insists BT) to the hypertext links. The legal profession may be divided on the merits of BT's case, but public opinion is not. For the vast majority of web users this will smack of the worst kind of opportunism. Forget for a moment that others - most notably the Stanford Research Institute as long ago as 1968 - may have a more genuine claim to this piece of intellectual property and consider the implications of a BT win. Websites are littered with common conventions - some rooted in good design, others rooted in technology. All help people navigate from within and between sites and all play on the strengths of an interconnected world. Now imagine if the 'inventor' of the first search engine, or the 'creator' of the first "email to a friend" button, or indeed the 'developer' of the first discussion forum decides he should get royalties for every iteration of an original idea? The internet would soon grind to a halt. It would spell disasters for the publishers, the e-tailers and - most of all - the users of the web. And none of these concepts - undoubtedly demonstrating intellectual prowess - is more integral to the internet than hyperlinks. After all, the web is not a web without links.
Nobody denies the right of an individual or a company to protect their hard-earned inventions but the internet has prospered precisely because it was allowed to develop virtually untouched by commercial concerns through the late 1960s and in to the mid-1990s. Others haven't sought financial gain, and neither should BT. If BT wants to make money out of the web it should seek to help make the UK a leader in broadband. And if it wants to give value to its shareholders it should do it through its core business - telephony. It should not seek to profit from a piece of good fortune that threatens to do enormous damage just when the internet is recovering from the worst decline in its history. Antiques Roadshow, this ain't.
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