SBC patents web site navigation
January 21, 2003 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Evil SBC acts like bully going after small sites with an absurd patent. If you've ever designed a web site with "selectors or tabs that... seem to reside in their own frame or part of the user interface" such as Metafilter's header or Amazon's tabs or c|net's yellow side bar, then your design is in violation of SBC Communication's patent number 5,933,841. Here's the abstract:
A structured document browser includes a constant user interface for displaying and viewing sections of a document that is organized according to a pre-defined structure. The structured document browser displays documents that have been marked with embedded codes that specify the structure of the document. The tags are mapped to correspond to a set of icons. When the icon is selected while browsing a document, the browser will display the section of the structure corresponding to the icon selected, while preserving the constant user interface.
Armed with this patent SBC is going after web sites with a licensing fee of $100,000 to $16,000,000. Will this insanity ever stop?
via Jarle's Cyberspace
posted by DragonBoy (47 comments total)
Nope, not until someone figures out a *real* way to make money on the internet.
posted by jeremias at 6:47 AM on January 21, 2003

I hope the folks at SBC can sleep at night....on their enormous piles of cash.

Isn't there prior art for this all over the place? I mean, it seems like they're describing something that's very much like frames, which were a fairly early feature.
posted by bshort at 6:48 AM on January 21, 2003

Wouldn't anchors qualify under the excerpted definition, too?
posted by Vidiot at 6:51 AM on January 21, 2003

It's pretty obvious this won't hold in a legal sense. Right?
posted by angry modem at 6:57 AM on January 21, 2003

If the patent stands it might finally bring about the end of frames! [/me ducks]
posted by botono9 at 7:00 AM on January 21, 2003

Filed: May 17, 1996

Oh come on... prior art, surely...

I'm going to go off and patent my method of creating electromagnetic waves in the range of 400 nm to 700 nm...

Oh, and my new 'naked heat' cooking method.
posted by twine42 at 7:01 AM on January 21, 2003

this is too funny. good links, including's repsonse, available on
posted by danOstuporStar at 7:02 AM on January 21, 2003

angry modem: Yep, it seems like there's no way that this patent would hold up in court. But the big question is: who is going to challenge it?

It can cost nearly $1,000,000 to fight a patent case. And that's if you win. The best thing that could happen would be if a defense fund could be set up, coupled with a write-in campaign to SBC by customers.

Letting the company know that the community at large isn't going to put up with lame shenanigans like this is probably the most effective response..
posted by bshort at 7:03 AM on January 21, 2003

at evil SBC (formerly known as ameritech here) they never sleep. last week they bought off the public service commission here in michigan, who granted them permission to go into the long distance business after years of denying them based upon thier obstructive reluctance to open thier networks to competitors. i dumped them totally - no landline, no local, no long distance - in favor of the only slightly less disgusting consumer predators known as verizon wireless.
posted by quonsar at 7:06 AM on January 21, 2003

Saddam Hussein, alligator pools, my ass: there's little in life more frightening than a snarling pack of lawyers...
posted by troutfishing at 7:12 AM on January 21, 2003

Yahoo! circa 1995.
posted by machaus at 7:17 AM on January 21, 2003

Can't some lawyer make a few bucks by nailing them for threatening a "frivolous lawsuit" or something like that? If only...
posted by micropublishery at 7:28 AM on January 21, 2003

When you said SBC, I at first thought you meant the Southern Baptist Convention. I was like "What? They have a patent? On what? Bigotry?"
posted by grrarrgh00 at 7:45 AM on January 21, 2003

"The companies you trust, All in one place"

"America's most admired companies"



STrange... no mantion of it in their press room... I wonder why. Anyone else notice the large "constant user interface" at the top of the patent office webpage?

Can you sue the patent office for patent infringement...?
posted by twine42 at 7:54 AM on January 21, 2003

Sorry, write up not QUITE correct. The low fee is $527. The highest possible fee is $50,000,000. Per year.

Ponder this: SBC exists because they are a government sponsored monopoly. They have taken the money from the government sponsored monoply to branch out in ways like this.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:59 AM on January 21, 2003

Not to mention they are an awful phone company that screws their competition.
posted by 4midori at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2003

grrarrgh00 - I thought it meant Seattle's Best Coffee, which does have a patent on Most Ineffective Name Ever For A Coffee Shop Looking To Expand To New Regions. ...or is that a trademark?
posted by vito90 at 9:14 AM on January 21, 2003

I feel like buying something from today.
posted by sageleaf at 9:29 AM on January 21, 2003

vito90 - is 'seattle's best' an ineffective name? i always thought seattle had a reputation for coffee, so "seattle's best" must be really good coffee..
posted by reverendX at 9:31 AM on January 21, 2003

America differs from all other Western democracies (indeed, from virtually all nations of any sort) in its refusal to recognize the principle that the losing side in litigation should contribute toward "making whole" its prevailing opponent. [ref]
Guys, it's time for 'loser pays'. When the loser in a lawsuit has to pay the winner's legal fees, it discourages entrepreneurial lawsuits, like this one. That's because the bully here, SBC, thinks that the threat of having to shell out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal defense fees -- even if they win! -- will make its victims buckle under and pay up, even if the claim is nonsensical, even if the victim thinks he could win.

We need sensible tort reform. Will you support it?

p.s. mediareport, if you're reading: this is an example of one of those 'business vs. business' lawsuits you were talking about. Yes, it sucks, and the problem would be helped a lot by the same kind of tort reform that we need for bad business vs. consumer lawsuits.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 9:32 AM on January 21, 2003

Ralph Nader where are you!?
posted by mooseindian at 9:37 AM on January 21, 2003

"tort reform" is code for "let's protect corporations from all those greedy humans . . . destroy destroy destroy."
posted by Outlawyr at 9:40 AM on January 21, 2003

revX - SBC is considered pretty marginal coffee, considered inferior to SBUX by the mainstream (which is considered inferior to everything by coffee nazis), and I think as many people in, say, Boston would be as likely to eschew it as to try it on account of the name. But mostly I'm talking out of my ass.
posted by vito90 at 9:44 AM on January 21, 2003

Time for loser pays? I think not.

Otherwise the battle is he who has the better lawer or the willingness to carry on the longest.

Google on England and McDonalds VS 2 citizens. These 2 citizens are being sued for their activism...handing out info packets about what McDonalds do.

How about judges who don't tell you to 'go get a lawyer' in small claims court, just because the other party HAS a lawyer?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:45 AM on January 21, 2003


You're talking about the "English Rule," where, in tort cases, the loser always pays the winners fees. This would have a chilling effect on frivalous lawsuits, as you rightly point out. However, this rule can also be a very effective way of keeping unjust laws, practices, products or procedures in place by having the party in power promising huge legal bills to any that dare step forward to challange them.

Imagine what would have happened to the nascent civil rights movement if it would have had to pay the legal bills of all its failed cases. The movement would have died at the first courthouse defeat.
posted by thewittyname at 9:53 AM on January 21, 2003

I do not believe that the patent covers any use of frames. If you look closely at the claims (which define what is protected by the patent) they each seem to include a limitation to the effect of having some display regions responsive to an input device (say an icon or selectable button) which always stay displayed and which correspond to sections within a document so that by selecting them that portion of the document is displayed. Using frames to select different documents for display would not appear to be covered. It only appears to cover something like using a frame and icons to display different sections within a single document. Is there any good prior art for this concept which was published more than one year before the May 17, 1996 filing date of SBC's patent?

As regards loser pays, if SBC were to reasonably know that their patent were invalid but sued someone on it anyway that would in essence constitute an antitrust violation and they could be hit with large damages in a countersuit. That would also almost certainly make the patent suit an exceptional case and give the judge leeway to order SBC to pay the defendant's costs.
posted by caddis at 9:59 AM on January 21, 2003

rough ashlar: Otherwise the battle is he who has the better lawer or the willingness to carry on the longest.

And what do you think it's about now?

There's no point in commenting on the Morris and Steel suit because a) they were probably guilty under English law, and b) it couldn't have happened in the US because libel law is different. That's a separate issue. But in general, if the US had the 'English Rule', corporations would be less able to push individuals around, because the individuals could recover legal costs of their defense from the corporations if they won. Individuals are less susceptible to legal blackmail under the English Rule.

thewittyname: Imagine what would have happened to the nascent civil rights movement if it would have had to pay the legal bills of all its failed cases. The movement would have died at the first courthouse defeat.

They would have picked cases more selectively. As everyone should do. The civil rights movement ultimately won because they had the moral high ground, swung general white public opinion to their side, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Not because of lawsuits.

Man, these responses are really sad. Here is the kind of case (and far from the only one) that everyone recognizes is abuse of the system because the loophole of no 'loser pays' in the US... and everyone is running away from the solution.

This thread would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2003

speaking of bullies
posted by specialk420 at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2003

Sounds like a similar case from last fall. Same tactic similar story.
posted by DBAPaul at 10:30 AM on January 21, 2003

Sure, the "tree view" and thumnail views of Adobe Acrobat predate that and seem to fit the description (general as it is), as does the "fisheye view" of Bellcore's Superbook (ca 1988).
posted by plinth at 10:31 AM on January 21, 2003

I think I'll change all of my websites over to this form of navigation. Just because.
posted by moonbiter at 10:38 AM on January 21, 2003

How many more of these are we going to see? Davezilla was targeted last year, now another small site by a giant conglomerate whose patent is the equivalent of claiming to own the color blue. It's disgusting.
posted by greengrl at 10:42 AM on January 21, 2003

guys, hold up a second, I'm channeling a news story from the future... ohm ooohm...
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Long-suffering telecom giant, SBC Communications set a personal uptime record of 34 minutes before going down to yet another brutal barage of denial of service attacks that have plagued the company since January of last year.

Hilary B. Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, was quoted as saying, "QUIT YER BITCHIN."
ah, lost the signal. they were just about to get to the part about bush's new contraception education plan, which will include pictures of aborted fetuses and bible verses on WIC vouchers!

When you said SBC, I at first thought you meant the Southern Baptist Convention. I was like "What? They have a patent? On what? Bigotry?"

for the record: before I saw the truth and the light of atheism, my parents used to force me to attend a southern baptist church and one time we had a guest preacher who was black so there's no way those southern baptist guys can be racist!
posted by mcsweetie at 10:54 AM on January 21, 2003

(cough)blow job(cough)
posted by mathis23 at 10:57 AM on January 21, 2003

Man, these responses are really sad. Here is the kind of case (and far from the only one) that everyone recognizes is abuse of the system because the loophole of no 'loser pays' in the US.

No. The SBC case exists here today because of the patent system of the US. The patent system now operates under the idea that 'if there is a mistake, let the courts sort it out.' And if you are found to have 'lied' or misreprented, there is no punishment to speak of.

So, downside risk, nil. Upside benefit, great.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:58 AM on January 21, 2003

What bugs me most is that the patent is, in effect, on a design-scheme. Because at the time of patent, all the technology existed (frames) to allow anyone to use them in this manner. Which is nuts. I mean, shit, can I patent white-on-blue text?

As for the loser-pays legal system. Basically you have two evils: if we keep our current system, it favors frivilous lawsuits and corporate muscle. If you go to the British system, it favors a very slow change of policy. But like someone else mentioned, policy is changed best when civilization in general makes a fuss, not when a guy wins or loses a lawsuit. In the current economic climate of the U.S., with corporations already levying so much power, I'd favor the loser-pays system.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:17 AM on January 21, 2003

specialk420: try as i might, i couldn't find SBC mentioned anywhere in that link of yours. if this is your way of sneaking in an I/P post, well, it would be better suited in the latest SUV bashing.
posted by quonsar at 11:55 AM on January 21, 2003

well, they can pry my nifty organized tabular navigation from my cold dead websi--oh, nevermind.
posted by angry modem at 12:15 PM on January 21, 2003

Loser already pays the other party's court costs and reasonable litigatiton expenses except for attorney fees.

On the last case I lost, a medium sized personal injury case, my client was responsible for $5,800.00 in costs and expenses.

That's enough of a penalty to deter frivolous litigation. By the the way, the case referenced above was not frivolous. There ware some hotly contested fact issues on liability.

The mere fact that one loses does not mean that the case was frivolous. In fact the best deterrent to frivolous litigation is the contingent fee system. I'm not working for free on any case.

In the current litigation climate, juries are turning thumbs down on good claims. Frivolous claims tend to be dismissed without compensation and a hefty bill for costs and expenses.

By the way, the obese individuals that sued the fast food restaurants, they won't get any money, but we'll never hear about it when the cases are dismissed.
posted by mygoditsbob at 12:21 PM on January 21, 2003

When will that myopic and outdated patent office get fixed? Maybe US citizens could start a campaign of letter writing to their congressmen asking for an overhaul of the system. Someone in the US could set up a website with info about what needs to be done to get things back on track etc. Something seriously needs to be done...
posted by Stuart_R at 12:43 PM on January 21, 2003

The link of the original data was:

it has moved (less the Jpegs) to

If the demand is there, I can wrap up my saved copies and put 'em on the net someplace.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:50 PM on January 21, 2003

Why should any small company have to mount a legal challenge against SBC? Why not just ignore such ridiculous letters and let SBC try and sue? Or not sue and instead move onto an easier mark, as the case may be.
posted by rory at 1:25 PM on January 21, 2003

traffic to museumtour is increasing - it is pretty hard to get too occasionally. how funny would that be? museumtour's revenue goes into the next pricing tier becuase of hullabaloo created by lawsuit...

even more ironic if sbc is museumtour's isp...
posted by Big_B at 1:29 PM on January 21, 2003

Reminds me of an old Mad Magazine cartoon of three adjacent pizza joints.

First pizza joint has a sign that says: BEST PIZZA IN NEW YORK!!
Second pizza joint: BEST PIZZA IN THE WORLD!!!
Third pizza joint, the one with the line outside: Best pizza on the block.
posted by adamgreenfield at 3:26 AM on January 22, 2003

Oh, and I invite SBC to SUE ME FIRST.

posted by adamgreenfield at 3:27 AM on January 22, 2003

Vito90, Seattle's Best Coffee has that name because their original name, Stewart Brothers Coffee, was challenged by another coffee company (in Chicago, I think) with a similar name. They were fine as long as they were a local company, but when they tried to expand nationwide they ran into the problem.

I think for a while they were just SBC, and then they decided to expand it to Seattle's Best. Anyway, when I see the initials SBC, they are what comes to my mind, too.

(I did an employee newsletter for them in PageMaker 1.2 for a couple of years. Or maybe it was PageMaker 2, I forget. They were Stewart Brothers then.)
posted by litlnemo at 3:57 AM on January 22, 2003

mygoditsbob: The McDonald's suit was dismissed today.
posted by whatever at 10:01 AM on January 22, 2003

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