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W3C seeks backing against patent claim

The World Wide Web Consortium calls on members to help fight a patent claim that could derail a developing Web privacy standard.

The World Wide Web Consortium today called on members to help fight a patent claim that could derail a developing Web privacy standard.

"Push" technology firm Intermind has long been a thorn in the side of Internet companies involved in so-called push technology, in which information is automatically sent from server to client. Intermind, which was awarded push-related patent 5,862,325 in January, previously has claimed that Microsoft and Netscape Communications, among others, may have to license its technology as a result of its patents.

Today the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), of which Intermind is a member, called on the Web community to pitch in to counter Intermind's push patent. Intermind claims that three W3C standards, one governing the exchange of private information, "may be related" to its patent claims.

These include the Channel Description Format, Microsoft's proposal for pushing content via Web channels, and Open Software Distribution, a method of governing automatic software updates. But the focus of the W3C's defensive move against Intermind's patent is the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), which lets clients and servers negotiate how the client's personal information can be used and distributed.

In response to Intermind's patent claim, the W3C is calling on members and supporters to submit "prior art," or examples of technology that predate Intermind's patent application and therefore may invalidate or at least substantially narrow it.

"We know that the most effective way to keep an open Web is to involve the Web community," said W3C spokesperson Janet Daly. "Our job is to lead through collaborative efforts and get people to bring out their prior art."

For now, the W3C said it is collecting that information to help Web firms assess the risk the patent poses to them. The W3C won't say what it will do if it does find significant prior art but noted it has many options.

Intermind declined to comment on the W3C's call for submissions, saying the consortium had not contacted the company yet on the issue. But Drummond Reed, vice president of product development, defended the patent.

"Needless to say, we're very confident in the patent and in what we're going to do with it," Reed said. "We're going to make sure this patent is used to strongly enforce privacy on the Internet."

Push and privacy technology intersect in that both involve automatic negotiations between client and server on what information to transmit and how to treat it. Push traditionally concerns the way a Web site gets information to a visitor, while the privacy technology comes into play during the transfer of information from client to Web server.

"Otherwise the process is almost identical," Reed said. "Agents on the consumer and Web site sides can set rules so that you could give your name and address, for instance, but the site can't give it to anyone else. Any use of our technology for privacy protections is a hugely powerful way for consumers to set their own rules."

Intermind has big plans for the technology, according to Reed.

"What we're working on is a more global application, for consumers and businesses to put privacy protection immediately into practice," said Reed. "I can guarantee you that when the full plans for the use of the patent become public, folks will see that we plan to lead the entire Internet in a privacy revolution."

That application is a couple of months from market, Reed said.

The W3C is not the only group to have made a plea for prior art. Mozilla.org, the group created by Netscape to oversee open-source development of the Communicator Web browser, last year called on its followers to dig up prior art against a patent infringement suit filed against Netscape by network and desktop computing integration firm Wang Global. Wang's suit and its patent claims were dismissed the following month.

This is the first action the W3C has taken against a patent.

Intermind also is not the only company with a push patent. NetDelivery also claims one, the validity of which Intermind has questioned.

Other companies have asserted patents related to W3C standards, most notably Microsoft, which has claimed a patent on cascading style sheets.