Patent Action On Software By A.T.& T.

By John Markoff
The New York Times

February 26, 1991

A.T.& T. has quietly sent letters to a number of computer makers and software publishers informing them that they are infringing a 1985 Bell Laboratories patent that covers basic software technology for running several programs simultaneously on a computer display.

The letters cover the software for work stations, the fastest-growing part of the computer industry, and could have a significant impact on smaller companies in that field. But it will have no effect on personal computer companies like Apple Computer Inc. and the Microsoft Corporation.

The letters have raised concerns among some computer industry executives, who said they feared that by trying to enforce the patent the American Telephone and Telegraph Company would in effect re-enact a controversial 1988 lawsuit. In that case, which is still to be decided, Apple sued Microsoft and the Hewlett-Packard Company over the "look and feel" of computer displays.

A Vital Area

The patent covers an area that is vital to modern computer work stations and personal computers that use software graphics display systems, known as window managers, to permit users to look at information in multiple windows on a computer screen. Such software, now available on most popular desktop computers, uses a "mouse" peripheral device to control the system by pointing at icons or menus to issue specific instructions.

A.T.& T. officials said the company did not view the letters as unusual. "It's a routine business area, the way we look at it," said William Ryan, a Bell Laboratories lawyer. He said some companies that had received the letter were alarmed because they were not used to licensing technology, which is standard among larger high-technology companies.

But other software developers said that the A.T.& T. licensing procedure could limit the distribution of some software systems. Richard Stallman, a well-known programmer who has established a software foundation to create a free version of Unix and a set of advanced programming tools, said the A.T.& T. move could cripple his program.

"It's a threat to small software companies and to free software," he said.

The letters have been sent during recent months to members of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology organization known as the X Consortium, which distributes an advanced software system that is being adopted by a wide variety of computer makers and software vendors who develop systems that run the Unix operating system.

A spokeswoman at the Santa Cruz Operation, a Santa Cruz, Calif., software publisher that offers a version of the Unix operating system, said that the company had been contacted last year and had responded to A.T.& T. that it was not clear what the infringement was. The company has not heard from A.T.& T. since it responded.

'Window Manager' Development

The first development in advanced software window managers was done by researchers at the Xerox Corporation 's Palo Alto Research Center during the 1970's. But that technology permitted only one active window at a time, said Robert C. Pike, a Bell Laboratories researcher who holds the A.T.& T. patent.

In the early 1980's, he developed a system that permitted several programs to run simultaneously, sending the results of each program to a different window. The key to the Bell Laboratories technology is that it frees the programmer from worrying about whether a program is being displayed or hidden behind another window.

Mr. Pike said he did not know whether his patent would cover popular commercial programs like Microsoft's Windows 3.0 or the Apple Macintosh software system. Officials at Microsoft said that they had not been contacted by A.T.& T.

Mr. Pike also said that A.T.& T. was not trying to cripple the software industry by seeking to license its technology. "The technical communities' fears are not reasonable," he said. "A.T.& T. is going to behave sensibly and honorably about this. Remember, this is the company that gave away the transistor."

In recent years, there has been a trend for some high-technology companies, like Texas Instruments Inc., to aggressively pursue patents on basic technology as a fundamental source of revenue, said Jack Russo, a Palo Alto lawyer who specializes in intellectual property law.

"It's an interesting development," he said. "I always thought of A.T.& T. as a sleepy company that has a lot of patents they do nothing with. I haven't seen them act aggressively in the past."


Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company