SBC Communications Inc is enforcing a patent it owns that, it claims, covers the use of frame-like user interfaces in web sites, it emerged this weekKevin Murphy writes.
. If your web site uses a frames or a persistent user interface, then you could be in infringement.
Using SBC’s interpretation of its patent, hundreds of thousands of web sites, including those of many SBC’s own hosting customers, many of the web’s biggest sites, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office itself, could be in infringement.
"SBC Intellectual Property currently is working with several commercial web site owners regarding patent licensing agreements related to specific techniques for enabling consistent navigation features from different pages of a web site," SBC said in a statement yesterday.
According to an SBC letter published by MuseumTour.com, which was the first to disclose SBC was demanding license fees, simply using an interface that remains on-screen while a user navigates the site could constitute infringement of US patents 5,933,841 and 6,442,574, both entitled "Structured Document Browser".
"Your site includes several selectors or tabs that correspond to specific locations in your site document. These selectors are not lost when a different part of the document is displayed to the user," the SBC letter reads. "[These features] appear to infringe several issued claims in the ’841 and ’574 patents."
An SBC spokesperson declined to comment beyond the company’s prepared statement.
It is believed that a small number of sites have so far been contacted, likely in the tens. SBC is asking between $527 and $16.6m per year to license the patented technology, depending on the annual revenue of the company concerned and what kind of license they sign up for.
After the news broke, SBC’s actions were immediately condemned by many in the internet-using community, their criticisms echoing those made during controversies over the enforcement of patents on arguably obvious inventions by the likes of Amazon.com Inc and BT Group Plc.
SBC’s now defunct Prodigy brand consumer ISP unit was on the receiving end of one of the last major "obvious" patent suit to hit the headlines. BT Group Plc sued Prodigy, claiming a decades-old patent on Videotext systems covered hypertext. The suit was ultimately unsuccessful.
The ’814 patent was granted in August and applied for in April 1999 and the ’574 patent was granted in August 1999 and applied for in May 1996. Usually, companies can defend against a frivolous patent enforcement by finding "prior art" that shows the patent holder did not invent the technology.
Support for the HTML Frames method, which SBC’s letter to MuseumTour alludes to as a way to build the persistent user interfaces SBC says it owns, was introduced in the first beta release of the old Netscape Navigator 2.0 browser, which became available to developers in October 1995.
ComputerWire covered the release of Navigator 2.0 (ComputerWire, October 19, 1995) thus: "Frames can also be used as ledges, frozen areas of screen that are maintained while the user looks through other pages. This is especially useful for having a fixed navigation bar at the bottom of the screen, or a corporate logo kept at the top."