AT&T Begins On Software Patents

Technical Computing STICS, Inc.

March 1, 1991

In 1985 Mr. Robert C. Pike, a Bell researcher, patented some of the basic software technology now called "windowing" that allows several programs to run simultaneously while displaying output on a single display device. The patents have apparently not been enforced for six years, but now AT&T has sent letters to (it says) a number of computer makers and software publishers informing them that they were violating (in Bell's opinion) its patents. According to Counselor William Ryan (Bell Labs), "It's a routine business area, the way we look at it." He continued, saying that he believes that the companies notified were not used to licensing technology.

Mr. Richard Stallman, the leading advocate and producer of free software through his software foundation, had another view. He said "It's a threat to small software companies and to free software." Continuing he indicated that AT&T might be able to cripple his program to provide a free version of the Unix operating system and other Unix based programming tools.

A spokesperson for Santa Cruz Operation, which supplies Unix software commercially, said that it had received such a letter some time ago. SCO replied that it was not sure what AT&T was talking about, and it has not had another letter.

AT&T has also sent letters to members of the X consortium at M.I.T., which is developing and distributing software that layers windowing on top of Unix. This is now big business, because many manufacturers are offering X Windows products. DEC in particular is heavily engaged in X Windows distribution and program development.

Mr. Pike himself was less of an alarmist. He felt that AT&T was not going to cripple the software industry, citing the transistor giveaway as an example of corporate statesmanship. He said that "The technical community's fears are not reasonable. AT&T is going to behave sensibly and honorably about this."