Web technology patents rendered useless by W3C

Posted on June 1, 2003

Just when I can't find a topic to produce a column, and the only thing that

comes to mind is record-size

exotic fish, up pops something that should allow

me to keep my job for at least another few months.

From a story

on PC World,

the World Wide Web Consortium announced a formal policy ensuring

that key Web technologies, even if patented,

would be made available on a royalty-free basis.

During the last couple of months,

some companies had been jostling for patents that included e-commerce, domain

name servers and boiling water. Of

course, by gaining a patent for boiling water, this meant that every time someone

tried to make hot chocolate or oatmeal, that person would have to pay a fee

to the company that owned the patent.

This might seem ridiculous, but in the

Web development world, this is not far from the truth. Any company can

use tools available to build complex systems

that already have been built. I've been constructing Internet applications

for fewer than three years, and I've worked on projects dealing with mass mailing,

calendars, shopping carts, sports fantasy leagues, news, to name a few. And

I don't know nearly as much about some of these things as people who have been

programming their entire lives.

Last year, a company called Pangea

Intellectual Properties sued various sites for infringing on its e-commerce

sites. News

spread quickly to other corporations

that patenting Web-based products could be worth more than the actual products

themselves. In the US

Patent database, I performed a simple search on 'Internet,'

and I received 32,547 hits. I glanced through some of the patents on the front

page, and the first word that came to mind to describe these was useless. How

can you patent a data

transmitting and receiving system? There's also a patent

for a Web

user interface session and sharing of session environment information.

I've set up numerous Web sites that utilize this technology. Fortunately, I

haven't been sued, but even if I were, the only thing I'd have to give would

be pictures of large exotic fish.

From what I've seen, the guys in the patent

office don't necessarily understand Web technologies. That's why anyone can

basically walk in, prove they have

invented something and be awarded a patent. Then lawyers can spend countless

hours explaining to other companies who developed similar systems that their

clients already built them, and therefore, they have the right to sue.

To put

this in simpler terms, from simpler times, take a look at the invention

of barbed wire. Both Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish claimed to have invented

barbed wire. Both men saw an exhibit at the county fair showing a new type

of fence, and both came away with the thought of making it better. Glidden

applied for a patent for his creation known as "The Winner," but

Haish was awarded a patent first for his "S-Barb." Strangely enough,

both lived in Dekalb, Ill., which is known by all as a hot bed for barbed wire

production. What ensued was a three-year legal battle, producing more than

570 barbed wire patents. Glidden won the battle because he applied first.


difference between these two is that in the barbed wire example, the products

were similar and not improvements on each other. With Web development and

database integration, improvements are made hourly, due to customer preference,


economical reasons, etc. It's almost as if these developments are more or

less ideas and not necessarily actual inventions.

And everyone knows you can't

patent an idea.

So, I'm hoping that the W3C will be able to keep its clout

and withhold erroneous patents from making such an impact within the Web

development community.

Most crucial technologies that we use via the Internet (TCP/IP, HTML,

HTTP) are

all royalty free, and if they weren't, people probably wouldn't be using

them as much as they do.

But then again, it's feasible new patents could

be issued. I'm currently constructing a new type of barbed wire that allows

fisherman to enclose large exotic fish.

Oh, I meant to mention

earlier that I invented the Back button in your Web browser. It's time

to hit that right now.