By BBC News Online internet reporter
UK firm BT is claiming ownership of a key part of the internet.
The telecommunications giant says it came up with idea for
hyperlinks that turn separate pages of information into an
Clicking on a hyperlink whisks you from one webpage to another.
BT says a patent filed in the US in 1976 and granted in 1989
gives it ownership of hyperlink technology
Now, it is asking US internet service providers to pay to use
what it considers to be its intellectual property.
If the claim is successful, BT stands to make millions from the
Currently, there are around 1.5bn pages on
the web. Each one has, on average, 52 links on it.
Berners-Lee: The scientist is
usually credited as the inventor of the world wide
BT filed patents on the hyperlink idea in other countries but
these claims have now expired.
However, the US patent runs out in 2006.
Ben Goodger, a technology and intellectual property expert from
law firm Willoughby and Partners, said BT would be unwise to try and
enforce its claim.
"The commercial damage and unpopularity which BT would bring
on its head if it tried to enforce this patent would be
incalculable," he said.
Mr Goodger said in the 1980s Unisys tried to enforce its claim to
a technology which was widely used to compress image files.
He said Unisys was vilified for its action at the time especially
when it started charging $5000 per licence.
Now over 2000 companies have paid Unisys for a licence to use the
compression system known as the LZW algorithm.
Post Office pioneer
BT rediscovered the Hidden Page patent three years ago during a
routine trawl of its 15,000 patents.
The growing popularity of the internet has spurred it to
capitalise on the patent.
"It is only now that the world wide web has become
commercially significant," said a BT spokesman.
He added that BT has spent the time preparing its licensing
programme for companies that want to use hyperlinks.
"It takes a long time to prepare a licensing programme of
this magnitude," said the spokesman.
Now, it has employed intellectual property experts Scipher,
formerly the Thorn-EMI research lab, to pursue those using
So far, BT and Scipher have sent letters to lots of US internet
service providers - it is not planning to ask individual users to
pay to use the web.
BT is now talking to the ISPs about licensing agreements. It
declined to divulge how much a licence to use the hyperlink
technology would cost.
The original patent was filed after work done on text based
information systems such as Prestel by the General Post Office
The GPO was split into BT and the Post Office in 1981.
Just as hyperlinks now let people navigate around the internet,
this early work helped users retrieve information from computers
they were indirectly connected to.
Despite BT's claims to the contrary, Tim Berners-Lee is usually
credited with inventing the global hypertext system that became the
world wide web.
Mr Berners-Lee says that in creating the WWW he drew on the work
of computing pioneer Ted Nelson - who is widely regarded as the