NET NEWS: Internet Patents Choking the Web?

Science  28 May 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5419, pp. 1427
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5419.1427c

Every day on average last year, the U.S. government issued nearly 50 patents on Internet tools and other software. But this apparent blitz of creativity may belie a big problem: Many of these inventions, some critics charge, aren't original enough to have warranted a patent and could hinder the Internet's growth by blocking free, unpatented standards.

The latest dustup is over a patent awarded last January to Seattle-based Intermind, for its software to help Web surfers track how sites they visit use their personal data. The company claims on its Web site ( that its patent may be infringed by an “open-source,” or freely shared, privacy protocol developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry and academic group that comes up with standards like HTML, the language for writing Web pages.

W3C struck back earlier this month, launching an appeal for people to send it evidence of “prior art,” or earlier technology that might help it challenge the patent ( (Intermind says it has already done a thorough search.) “The success of the Web has come about largely because of a commitment to open source,” says W3C spokesperson Janet Daly, pointing to the Web protocol, which inventor Tim Berners-Lee “gave away.” Berners-Lee himself this month suggested companies forge an ethics code to refrain from patenting such widely used technologies. Intermind president Brian McManus disagrees, saying patents mean “recognition for the amount of money and effort that has gone in.”

Some experts lay part of the blame with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Half of all software patents don't cite any prior art, which means neither the applicants nor the PTO has shown the inventions are novel, claims Greg Aharonian, editor of Internet Patent News Service. PTO official Steve Kunin says the problem is that examiners have no easy way to dig through old computer programs that don't show up in journal databases. The office plans to hold hearings starting in June to seek advice.

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