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Now, About Those Patents...

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 2/22/02 issue of R&R Three companies have had their days in court, asking judges to give them the rights to two of the most basic concepts on the net: links, clips and compression.

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InTouch, British Telecom and SightSound have had varying degrees of success in enforcing their claims, dubious to some, that they created, or at least legally control, the very things that you and I would think no one would actually try to patent. On the face of it, it seems more akin to trying to patent breathing or walking than a product or business process.

InTouch, a company that claims patent rights to the concept of making a short clip of music available for download, has not only enforced this claim, but have actually pushed heavyweight Amazon.com, which offers clips of the tracks on the CDs it sells through its arrangement with Muze, to settle out of court for the right to continue to do so.

British Telecom has been in court in New York to lay claim to links. Yes, links. The things you click on to get from place to place on the Web. At least in this case, the judge heard the laughter from all corners and has thrown the case out of court, but BT is a big huge company that relies on combing through the thousands of patent applications it files every year to mine them for income opportunities isn't laughing, and is going back to court on appeal.

Then there's SightSound. They claim they own the rights to allow you or I to set up the ability to transfer audio and video on the Net for a fee. No particular compression scheme, no particular style of connection, just the concept of sending a file from one point to the other for money. And they are suing CDNow for violating the patent, and won a ruling against them. CDNow has said they will appeal if they lose at trial on the grounds that the SightSound patent is overly broad.

Is this all fair? On the surface, common sense says no - that these patents are for things that we take for granted everyday. In the case of BT, Ted Nelson's hypertext concepts of the late 40's, and Bob Bemer's concept of escape predates BT's clunky attempt at patenting links. Amazon has been on both sides of this fence: they recently went after, and achieved, a patent on what they call OneClick ordering, which allows you to avoid the plodding process of creating and filling out the forms for a shopping cart when you buy something from them. They took a lot of heat for something that is decidedly more complex than the mere concept of transferring a file over the net, or clicking on a link, or simply clipping a hook out of a song.

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