Stealth Patents Put Innovation at Risk

eLABorations: Claiming ownership of ubiquitous technology is as counterproductive as it is desperate

At the recent Open Source Group Conference, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, spoke out on the need to keep Web standards and Web services patent-free. He knows what hes talking about—not only do patents threaten the standards put forth by his World Wide Web Consortium, they have even threatened his very invention of the Web, one that has been compared to Gutenbergs creation of the printing press.

Just a couple of years ago, British Telecom stunned the world by claiming to have a patent on hyperlinking. Despite the fact that everyone knew that there was prior art discussing hyperlinking before the date of the patent, the sheer threat of it caused a lot of consternation and worry. And just recently, Forgent Networks claimed to have a patent on the technology for the JPEG format, one of the most commonly used image formats on the Web today.

The thing that really bothered me about both of these claims (besides their dubious technological merits) was that both were old patents attacking technologies that were ubiquitous at the time of the claim, increasing the damage that just the sheer threat of the patent claim causes to the technology community.

I understand that companies losing money big time in todays economy are increasingly looking for pieces of paper in their closets that they can use to increase the value of their stock and to potentially blackmail other tech companies. But there has to be a limit here. Once a technology is as ubiquitous as JPEG or hypertext, there should be limits on patent claims because of the fact that the claimant had plenty of time (oh, you didnt notice the Web in the last five years?) to make its claim. At some point, we should just say, you had your chance to do something years ago and your claim on a commonly used technology is too potentially damaging.

This isnt just damaging to companies facing claims. Innovation itself is at risk. Right now, every new technology and supposedly open standard is at risk from a terrible foe, that piece of paper in somebodys basement.

What should be done about stealth patents? Let me know at