British company claims in court that it owns the patent on `hyperlinks'

Monday, February 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) _ A British company claimed in federal court Monday that it owns the patent on hyperlinks _ the single-click conveniences that take a Web surfer from one Internet page to another _ and should get paid for their daily use by millions of people.

But a federal judge with a laptop on her desk warned that it may be difficult to prove that a patent filed in 1976, more than a decade before the World Wide Web was created, somehow applies to modern computers.

``The language is archaic,'' said U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon. ``It's like reading Old English.''

She said comparing a 1976 computer with a 2002 computer is like comparing a mastodon and a jet. And she suggested that the invention at issue ``was already outmoded by the time it was patented'' in 1989.

But Albert Breneisen, an attorney for British Telecommunications PLC, insisted, ``The basic structure of linking is covered by the patent.'' Before BT's technology, he said, a computer user had to know and enter the complete address of another page.

At a preliminary hearing in White Plains, lawyers for BT and for Prodigy Communications Corp. _ the Internet service provider that is the first target of the lawsuit _ argued over the meanings of words as simple as ``central,'' as in ``central computer,'' and phrases as complex as ``means coupled to said further memory means.''

''`Central' is a simple English word,'' the judge said, to little avail, as the lawyers used slide shows, animations and charts.

BT tried to persuade the judge to interpret the language broadly for the jury _ to include a computer mouse, for example, as the ``keypad'' mentioned in the patent.

``It has keys,'' BT lawyer Robert Perry said hopefully.

When they argued over the word ``terminal,'' Prodigy lawyer Willem Schuuman tried to show that the ``dumb'' terminals of old cannot be equated to modern desktops that do their own computing.

The judge said she feared that jurors, who may have a hard enough time understanding their own computers, will not be able to grasp what computer technology was like in the 1970s, when mainframes the size of a Buick had less power than some handheld devices today.

``I'm thinking of the six, eight, 10 people who will not have a clue and will be terrified going into this,'' she said of the still-to-be-selected jurors.

But BT's Breneisen said outside court, ``I think a jury that uses clicks on their computers every day will be able to see how that relates to this patent. It's an old patent but it's got an awful lot of similarities to certain things that are being used on the Internet.''

If it is successful against Prodigy, which is now based in Texas but formerly was in White Plains, BT could challenge other Internet service providers and demand licensing fees that might add to members' costs.

At one point in the hearing, Prodigy referred to a German article about technology that existed before the BT invention, and the judge asked unsuccessfully for Schuuman to tell her what the article said.

``I only read German when I'm singing Bach,'' the judge said.