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Firms may face fees for using patented Y2K fix

A recently established technology patent for a popular Year 2000 software fix might mean companies that used the method could be responsible for back payments of thousands of dollars.

Companies could owe substantial back payments for use of a popular Year 2000 software fix that recently became patented.

Aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas has received a patent for a software technique called "windowing" that is used to fix computer code and has handed the patent over to the technique's inventor.

Back to Year 2000 Index Page Lawyers for inventor Bruce Dickens are reportedly threatening legal action to enforce payments from Fortune 500 companies that have used software fixes based on the now-patented technology.

Bill Cray, Dickens's attorney, would not comment on the specifics of the claim but said he is writing letters to companies that may have infringed on the patent.

This could have serious repercussions for the thousands of companies--roughly 90 percent--that have used some form of "windowing" to fix their computer systems, said Kazim Isfahani, an analyst with Giga Information Group.

Most popular technique
Windowing is the most popular of several techniques used to enable software to recognize four-digit year fields. A typical windowing fix would reconfigure software so that years entered as 00-29 are assumed to represent 2000 through 2029, and years entered as 30-99 represent 1930 through 1999.

Over the next month, the California law firm of Levin and Hawes will begin a systematic effort to contact U.S.-based organizations in an attempt to procure a lump sum for previous use of the patent, according to Isfahani.

"We think this is ridiculous," Isfahani said. "I suspect many companies will end up paying off as some form of nuisance fee, while smaller companies will try and fight this in court. They will be the ones that set the precedent on how this will go forward."

Giga Information Group expects that Dickens's attorneys will seek lump sum payments ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 from firms that already have used the Y2K fix.

Windowing is considered a faster way of fixing corrupted code than more traditional methods--such as the expansion method, for example, which allows software to recognize four-digit dates, like the year 2000.

After the turn of the century, the licensing fees will increase substantially for firms that are unwilling to agree to the initial offer, Isfahani said in a brief.

The Y2K problem, also known as the millennium bug, is rooted in the way dates are recorded in computer code. Previously, systems programmers used two digits to represent years to conserve PC memory. With this format, however, the year 2000 is indistinguishable from 1900, or 2001 from 1901.

Many technology executives, analysts, and government officials warn that the glitch could cause everything from failed cash registers and airline travel interruptions to possible power outages.