BT Joins the Patent Hall of Shame

Those with good memories may recall the following amusing episode when BT wanted to sue people for daring to use its super-duper patented hyperlink invention: In June 2000, BT sent letters to Prodigy Communications Corporation ("Prodigy") and 16...

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Those with good memories may recall the following amusing episode when BT wanted to sue people for daring to use its super-duper patented hyperlink invention:

In June 2000, BT sent letters to Prodigy Communications Corporation ("Prodigy") and 16 other Internet service providers (ISPs), asking them to pay licensing fee for BT's hyperlink patent; all refused. BT sued Prodigy, the oldest ISP in the U.S.A, for patent infringement on December 13, 2000. In suing, BT claimed that the Sargent patent covered hyperlink technology, one of the building block of the World Wide Web. BT argued that not only had Prodigy directly infringed the Sargent patent, but that it was also liable for inducing its users to infringe BT's patent. Prodigy submitted a motion for summary judgment of non-infringement, arguing that the technology it used to provided Internet access to its consumers was not covered by the claims of the Sargent patent.

Fortunately, BT's claims were thrown out, but it seems not to have learned from the experience of being mocked by the entire World Wide Web, and is back for more:

British Telecom is claiming billions of dollars of damages from Google in a lawsuit filed in the US which says that the Android mobile operating system infringes a number of the telecoms company's key patents.

The lawsuit, filed in the state of Delaware in the US, relates to six patents which BT says are infringed by the Google Maps, Google Music, location-based advertising and Android Market products on Android.

FOSS Patents has the details of the patents in question, and they are corkers:

U.S. Patent No. 6,151,309 on a "service provision system for communications networks"

"For example, a Google Android user can choose his or her settings to allow downloading of a file in Browser and Android Market only when the user is located in a WiFi hotspot and his or her device is connected to that hotspot."

Sounds like the archetypal patent on common sense: any engineer worth his or her salt could knock up a solution to this problem in a few hours.

U.S. Patent No. 6,169,515 on a "navigation information system"

...

U.S. Patent No. 6,397,040 on a "telecommunications apparatus and method"

BT complains that "Google Maps determines the location of the user in relation to one or more discrete predetermined map overlay areas" and then "transmits guidance information pertaining to public transportation stops, tourist attractions and local facilities present in an overlay area to all users within that overlay area", and does the same for "traffic and route guidance".

…

"may relate to sources of information respecitng services, facilities, friends and transportation and may be generated in accordance with user preferences".

Again, totally trivial ideas: that you might like information about the location in which you find yourself. And once more, easy to implement by any competent engineer.

U.S. Patent No. 6,578,079 on a "communications node for providing network based information service"

Following a login or the transmission of an authentication token, Google "offers the lsit of items that the user is entitled to access", and retrieves any such items at the user's request.

This is one of my favourites, since it essentially claims to have a patent on the idea of a log-in that gives you access to stuff you are allowed to, er, access.

U.S. Patent No. 6,650,284 on an "information system"

The complaint argues that Google Maps proposes different routes based on "the user's mode of transportation (e.g., bicycle or car)", which is correct.

No comment needed, I think.

U.S. Patent No. 6,826,598 on a "storage and retrieval of location based information in a distributed network of data storage devices"

BT sees an infringement in Google Maps and Google Maps Navigation providing different levels of specificity at different zoom levels, making some information available at multiple zoom levels and other information only at a particular level.

Although this one sounds slightly better than the bicycle patent above, it's yet another trivial idea that any half-trained engineer could implement in a few hours.

Of course, what's really interesting about these patents is not that they are all obvious in the extreme, but that BT is asserting them now, and asserting them only against Google. Why is that? If Android allegedly infringes, then surely every other mobile operating system on the planet also infringes: so why no lawsuits against Microsoft or Apple? Have they licensed these wonderful creations of BT's superior minds? Or does BT have ulterior motives for joining the "let's sue Google" club?

Obviously, I don't know, and BT isn't saying. Indeed, there doesn't even seem to be a press release about this action on the BT site. In fact, when I go to the BT media centre and search for "android", the whole system crashes: BT is obviously really allergic to Android for some reason.

But whatever the motivation, it's sad to see a British company joining in this pathetic patent mudfight. This has nothing to do with innovation, but is simply using a broken system to try to squeeze money from the real innovators – the ones who actually make stuff, rather than simply file patents and sit on them.

After the farce of BT's previous attempt to sue the world and her dog, you might have thought it would have learned if not humility, at least a little good sense. But then we need to recall that for most of its life BT was a monopoly, and one that used that fact to offer pretty awful service, secure in the knowledge that we had no choice. Indeed, BT was probably one of the most hated companies in the UK as a result.

Happily, it has improved somewhat since those dark days, but if it continues down this path of suing companies over alleged infringement of such risible patents, it's liable to become equally hated once more, albeit for different reasons and by different people.

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