Will the Web ever be the same?

Many companies and individuals who own e-commerce method patents are now going after companies that are using these patents online illegally. The patents, which are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or foreign patent offices, include everything from hyperlinks to Web-based access to databases. How could this be?

You mean hyperlinks aren’t free for everyone to use? Apparently not. British Telecom last month claimed to hold a patent on hyperlinks, granted back in 1989, and claims to be going after ISPs, not individual users, to make them license such links.

And therein lies the motivation for this rash of litigation from patent-holders. Most of the patent-holders aren’t looking to take Joe Blow to court but they might like to take the wind out of their competitor’s sail. For example, Amazon.com sued rival, Barnes & Noble for using Amazon’s patented “one-click ordering.” The score at the end of the first court round? Amazon one, Barnes and Noble zero.

Now that the courts are upholding the patents, that could mean big licensing fees for some online companies that are targets. To keep a case out of court, some online retailers are happily forking over $30,000 or more for licensing. And the part in the Internet cloud? According to a prominent patent attorney, very few cases go to court.

After the court dust settles, it’s doubtful the Web will ever be the same again for e-businesses.

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