Stop the Web! We own those links!

British Telecom claims it has patented hyperlinks, but one of the icons of Web history tells a different story.

Published June 21, 2000 7:19PM (EDT)

Before British Telecom sends any more ransom notes to Internet service providers, it needs a short course in the history of the Web.

On Tuesday, the news broke that the phone company believes that it holds a patent on hyperlinks, which it filed back in 1976 and was granted in 1989. And, now, it's collection time. Small-fry homepage owners apparently have nothing to worry about, but British Telecom sent letters to 17 U.S. Internet service providers demanding that they pay licensing fees on hyperlinks. That, of course, would let the telco collect on all those hundreds of millions of links that make the Web go round.

You might think a guy named Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, might have something to say about that. But he's not talking. Maybe that's because Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, (W3C) a "vendor neutral" organization, which includes British Telecommunications among its more than 400 corporate members.

But a spokeswoman for the W3C diplomatically points out that the W3C's own Web site tells a different story about the history of hyperlinking than the one that British Telecom's patent lawyers would have us believe.

Among the innovators listed in the timeline that covers history predating the British Telecom patent are Andries van Dam, a professor of computer science at Brown University who, with Ted Nelson, coiner of the term "hypertext," built the Hypertext Editing System in 1967. Van Dam and his students went on to create FRESS, a file retrieval and editing system, built around linking.

And van Dam is the first to point out that he and Nelson built on the advances of technical pioneer Douglas Engelbart, who created NLS (for oNLine System), a hyper-media groupware program that grew out of work that he'd been doing since the 1950s.

Van Dam, who stressed that he had not yet read the British Telecom patent, is incredulous that anyone or any organization could claim a patent to the technology behind hyperlinking. "I can't begin to understand what they could patent, given the prior art (Engelbart's NLS, our HES and FRESS), and our various late-'60s and early-'70s publications on implementation," he said via e-mail.

And such a patent, if it does hold, could be in a position to hijack the Web, van Dam argues. "Anyone successfully claiming a patent on such fundamental technology, both the primitive hypertext facilities available today on the Web, and the much more sophisticated and useful ones being designed into xpointer and xlink by W3C, could hold the world to ransom," he wrote.

The Web held to ransom by a phone company? Maybe we should have known that the telcos wouldn't let a communications medium that makes so many uses of the telephone obsolete get off so easily.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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