In a letter sent to at least one company that uses frames on its Web site, SBC said it is entitled to as much as $50 million in licensing fees, although actual figures would depend upon a company's revenue.
Museum Tour, a Milwaukie, Ore.-based seller of educational products, received a letter from SBC last week accusing it of infringing two of its patents.
In the letter sent to Museum Tour President Marilynne Eichinger, SBC's Harlie Frost, president of intellectual property, pointed out that the Museumtour.com Web site contains tabs pointing to different Web pages within the site, and those tabs are in a frame that does not disappear as a person navigates the site. SBC said those "features (as well as other valuable features) appear to infringe several issued claims" related to certain patents. The company urges Museum Tour to sign up for its licensing program.
Eichinger said she was surprised to get the letter because frames are such a common Web formatting tool. "It just seems very strange to me in that lots of companies have had this type of thing," said Eichinger, who doesn't plan to take any action until she's heard back from her attorney.
SBC did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
The patent process has come under fire in recent years as some companies have won the rights to patents that encompass common Internet features. In the latest high-profile case, Chicago-based enterprise services firm sued several companies for allegedly infringing its patent on the e-commerce shopping cart. In another case, now-defunct music company Liquid Audio accused one company of infringing a patent on technology that tracks people's physical location.
And e-commerce powerhouse Amazon.com has tried to cash in on a slew of patents over the years, on processes ranging from its 1-click ordering system to its affiliate and donation programs--actions that have prompted calls for a boycott in some circles.
Net advocates have protested the heavy-handed use of certain patents, saying that they slow down innovation by curtailing the adoption of certain obvious Web features.