The idea that British Telecom invented hyperlinking comes as a surprise to many
YOU WOULD THINK that British Telecommunications plc would be a somewhat humbled organisation these days. In the last year it has lost almost two thirds of its market value. Not only is it now worth less than a quarter of Vodafone, it has even been overtaken by smaller rivals such as Spain’s Telefonica. It may have its largest debt mountain ever, but BT has come up with a new scheme for getting extra cash – it proposes to tax the Internet!
In an extraordinary development, BT has just claimed that it has long owned a patent over the key internet concept of ‘hyperlinking’ and has (rather belatedly) decided to pursue this claim. Just before Christmas, BT sued Prodigy, one of the top US Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for infringement of their patent, and they intend to sue the others.
Hyperlinking is the key feature of the World Wide Web (WWW), where highlighted words or graphics contain an automatic reference to more information held elsewhere.
To follow the link to the connected information, you use your computer mouse to point to the highlighted element and click the mouse button. The referenced page is then fetched from wherever it is stored, anywhere on the Internet, and shown on the screen.
There are about 1.5 billion pages on the WWW, and each one has around 50 hyperlinks on it, so even a tiny royalty on each one would be worth an immense amount of money – if it could ever be collected.
BT’s patent arises from the work they did in the 70s on the development of Prestel, a failed early online information service that most people have now forgotten. BT had apparently also forgotten that they had this patent, which has now expired everywhere in the world except in the USA, but has found it again recently in a review of their patent portfolio.
The patent system is designed to protect inventors. In return for publishing your invention as a patent, you are allowed an exclusive license over its exploitation for a period. The system is intended to promote innovation, but only really works if the inventions are quite specific and describe a genuinely new technique.
Most expert observers regard BT’s claim as ludicrous. It refers to a display terminal with primitive features, where further information can be fetched by choosing from a menu of options. It doesn’t describe a key feature of hyperlinks, where the reference is highlighted for selection without the use of a separate menu.
Several people have a much better claim to have invented hyperlinks. Vannevar Bush, the US Chief Scientist during the Second World War, described a futuristic machine which he called the ‘Memex’ in a key article in 1945. Bush proposed “associative indexing… a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another”. Bush’s 1945 article is amazing – he describes in remarkable detail a system similar to the Web, almost exactly 50 years before it happened.
In the early 60s, Ted Nelson, wrote a book describing the concept, which he named ‘hypertext’ and went on to design a conceptual system called Xanadu. Also during the 60s, Doug Engelbart, working at the Stanford Research Institute, actually built a powerful system, called Augment, which pioneered most of the features of a modern personal computer, including the invention of the computer mouse. There is a film of a demonstration given by Engelbart in 1968 which clearly shows hyperlinking of text and graphics, and remote teleworking with a colleague at another location.
But most people will associate hyperlinking with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Rather than making money from his invention, he made it freely available. Tim set up, and continues to be the director of, the WWW Consortium, a non-profit institute which agrees open standards, and which has contributed to the huge success of the Web.
The idea that BT, at their Martelsham Heath research labs, invented hyperlinking comes as a surprise to many. It certainly came as a surprise to me – I remember specially arranging a demonstration of the WWW in 1994 for two senior managers from Martelsham. They had never seen the Web, as they were not allowed to access the Internet at Martlesham!
BT’s actions in this will make it few friends, especially in the USA. What can it be thinking of?
At the start of 2001, with the New Years Honours fresh in our mind, how about a campaign for a knighthood for Tim Berners-Lee, the British citizen who has genuinely changed the face of human communications. Perhaps Sir Iain Vallance and Sir Peter Bonfield, the Chairman and CEO of BT, might consider giving their gracious support.
Ian Ritchie is the founder of OWL International which launched the world’s first commercial hypertext product in 1986.