From the day the Internet went commercial, there has been an ongoing effort by corporations to control its technology and shape its nature. Net users must be continuously vigilant to detect backdoor attempts to establish proprietary technologies.
Since its inception, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a donor-supported membership group based in San Francisco, has served as a civil rights watchdog for electronic media. Its goal is to defend the rights of average citizens to think, speak and share ideas over electronic communications systems.
Recently, alarms started to sound at the EFF. There's a trend, the group found, of patent holders threatening and filing lawsuits against small businesses, individuals and nonprofits over claimed patent violations in their use of the Internet.
The problem, said the EFF, is that many of these patents are in some ways illegitimate and are being used to limit free expression. In reaction, the organization recently announced its Patent Busting Project-an initiative to reexamine some of the more sweeping patent claims.
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After inviting public submission of questionable patents, the group created a top 10 list of what it considered the most egregious and will request that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office re-examine the claims.
"These patent owners have been threatening people that just can't defend themselves," Jason Schultz, staff attorney at the EFF, told "Wired News." "They're trying to claim ownership over some fundamental part of software of the Internet that people use every day, and they're threatening small companies or individuals that can't afford lawyers."
The EFF's 10 Most Wanted List includes some major players in media and entertainment. Here they are, in order of what the EFF considers the most important.
1. Acacia Technologies claims to have a patent (No. 5,132,992) that covers the sending and receiving of streaming audio and video over the Internet.
The EFF said this "laughably broad patent would cover everything from online distribution of home movies to scanned documents and MP3s."
Acacia has already sued several large communications companies, said the EFF, and is now "unfairly targeting small audio- and video-streaming Web sites."
2. Clear Channel now claims to hold a patent (No. 6,614,729) for recording live performances of music concerts, editing them into tracks during the performance, and recording them to media, such as CDs, within minutes of the ending of the performance.
The media giant, with a major foothold in radio stations and concert venues, recently purchased the patent to what's called "Instant Live," and claims to own a monopoly on all-in-one technologies that produce post-concert live recordings on digital media.
The EFF said it is forcing bands like the Pixies to use Clear Channel's CD-burning systems instead of their own, or those of small startup companies.
The foundation is now threatening to sue anyone who produces post-show live recordings at any of its 100-plus U.S. concert venues. Clear Channel, charged that the EFF is twisting artists' arms to give up a significant chunk of their concert merchandise sales, one of the few revenue streams not already taxed by most recording labels.
3. Acceris Communications claims a patent (No. 6,243,373) for voice-over-IP technology. Put simply, the company contends its patent covers all telephone calls made over the Internet.
4. Sheldon Goldberg claims a patent (No. 6,264,560) for online gaming, including card games and real-time ladder rankings. Goldberg's attorney has sent a series of cease-and-desist letters to small gaming Web sites.
5. Ideaflood claims a patent (No. 6,687,746) for personalized subdomains. This is a system for allowing users of a network to create and retrieve information from a personally named subdomain, such as "action.eff.org." The EFF said Ideaflood is threatening community site LiveJournal, whose 3 million users each have their own subdomains.
6. NeoMedia Technologies claims its patent (No. 6,199,048) covers automatic access of a remote computer over a network. That system uses identification codes, such as barcodes, to look up information about products via a network. The EFF calls this claim "extremely dangerous."
7. Test.com claims a patent (No. 6,513,042) for a method of administering tests, lessons, assessments and surveys on the Internet, scoring them and maintaining records of test scores online.
The EFF worries this "overbroad patent threatens to chill the market for distance learning, online books that include tests, and software testing done on the Internet."
8. Nintendo has a patent (No. 6,672,963) for emulating its old video games, something the EFF said used to be allowable under the fair-use doctrine. This threatens small games companies that are writing emulators.
9. Firepond claims its patent (No. 6,411,947) covers automatic message-interpretation and routing systems. These are systems that use natural-language processing to respond to customers' online inquiries by e-mail. The EFF said Firepond is aggressively threatening companies working with natural-language processing software.
10. Seer Systems' patent (No. 5,886,274) covers the generation, distribution, storing and performing of musical work files. It claims control over a method of compiling music data as single files for distribution over the Internet. The EFF worries that it threatens to compromise MPEG-4 and XMF.
The owners of the patents cited by the EFF disagree with its findings. However, the EFF thinks its Top 10 List is on solid ground and will attempt to demonstrate to the Patent Office that it should re-examine each case.
Phil Mann, a Seattle patent attorney with 21 years of experience, told "Wired News" that the re-examination process is designed to give the public a method to oppose patents.
"It allows members of the public to ask that the patent be examined once again in light of new information," Mann said, "in the hope that the Patent Office will say, 'Oh, we made a mistake. That patent should not have been granted in the first place.'"
For more on the Patent Busting Project go to: www.eff.org/patent/
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.