Move Over, BT: He Invented Links

By Michelle Delio
2:00 a.m. Feb. 14, 2002 PST

Nobody should be more outraged over British Telecom's claim that it owns the patent to hyperlinking than Bob Bemer, who believes he may be the world's oldest, living computer programmer.

Bemer, 82, isn't just taking a political stance against the recent  legal filing  by British Telecom that claims the company owns a patent on hyperlink technology. In 1960, Bemer -- whose coding contributions form the foundation of many modern computer systems -- came up with a critical coding concept that is now used in hyperlinks.

So, he figures his claim is at least as good as British Telecom's, and some legal and computer experts agree with him.

But Bemer, who describes himself as a "computer software consultant, futurist and raconteur," doesn't intend to trump BT's claims in order to establish his own - he just wants to point out the perils of the patent system.

"I was amazed when I read that BT claims to own hyperlinks," Bemer said. "It's sad. Technology develops through decades of work by many people. That's why I put my work into the public domain whenever possible."

Bemer  started programming in 1949 and came up with the notion of the "escape sequence" while working as IBM's chief of programming standards. "Escape," which can be accessed on most keyboards through the "ESC" key, may seem like an innocuous, seldom-used feature to some computer users but its capabilities are heavily used in virtually all programs.

Escape's powers are huge but at its most basic level, it is a command that tells a computer to make a shift in its processing - allowing a user to move up, down or sideways through files, programs or networks. For example, every press of a phone key that allows a user to move through an automated information service is an invocation of Bemer's escape principle.

Escape also appears in every hyperlink as a slash (/), a programming command that allows Web users to move from computer system to computer system, or from page to page, in a website simply by clicking on a hyperlink.

Had Bemer or IBM, his employer at the time, patented the escape concept, he or they could own a sizable chunk of the world's technology right now. But Bemer chose to write an article about escape in a programming newsletter instead, stating that he wanted to put the idea into the public domain.

Some programming and legal experts said Bemer's escape sequence concept is more closely tied to current hyperlink technology than BT's patented claim.

"BT's claim is a real stretch but it's a fact that you can't have a hyperlink without Bemer's slash," said Adam Kaplan, an open source programmer and law student. "Bemer's altruism may help to establish the fact that hyperlinks are the work of many programmers who for good reasons didn't choose to claim ownership of their particular piece of code or idea."

Other examples of hyperlinks also predate BT's patent, including a 1965 book by American scientist Ted Nelson and a Stanford University 1968  research project .

Bruce Sunstein, chair of the patent practice group of Bromberg and Sunstein, believes that Bemer's and other programmers' contributions to hyperlinks won't affect the outcome of BT's patent case.

The BT patent is not aimed at any particular method used to achieve hyperlinking, but instead purports to cover how links are used in particular contexts, Sunstein said.

"The claims of the BT patent are in 'means plus function' form, and the courts have said that claims in this form cover structures that are disclosed in the patent and structures that are equivalent to what is disclosed in the patent," Sunstein said. "The battleground will be over what (usage) is equivalent to what is disclosed in the patent."

Sunstein also thinks it is highly unlikely BT will win its case.

"The patent was written before the Internet was commonplace and the patent deals with computers in communication with each other over telephone lines," Sunstein said. "Today, computers still use telephone lines for access to the Internet, but special purpose networks, including the Internet, are used for connecting servers (host computers) to other computers."

Bemer said he has no desire to "own" hyperlinks himself but he would really like to see BT's claims  shot down  just on principle.

Bemer has collaborated on many critical projects. He helped define the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) characteristics, which allows computers to exchange text across disparate operating systems. He was also one of the creators of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) the first widely used, high-level programming language for business applications.

"Advanced technology only happens when people take a basic idea and add to it," Bemer said. "All this new patent stuff is crazy and counterproductive."