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Patents Pressed Against File-Sharing Networks

By David McGuire
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page E05

A software company and its parent are claiming they hold patent rights to widely used Internet song-swapping technology, and they are demanding that several file-sharing networks obtain licenses in order to continue operating.

Attorneys for Altnet Inc. and its parent company, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Brilliant Digital Entertainment Inc., sent letters to several U.S.-based file-swapping firms -- including Lime Wire LLC, BearShare operator Free Peers Inc. and Mashboxx -- claiming that the companies were using patented technology in their products. The letter doesn't explicitly threaten a lawsuit but does invite the firms to "discuss licensing opportunities."

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"You could call it a warning. We call it an offer to license our technology," said Lawrence M. Hadley, counsel for Altnet and Brilliant Digital.

A valid patent would give the firm a tight hold on a popular means of identifying and trading digital copies of music, movies and software, just as a fledgling industry has sprung up to turn file sharing into a commercial enterprise.

Free, often illegal, swapping of songs on the Internet rose to popularity with the emergence of Napster in the late 1990s. After a judge ordered Napster to shut down in 2001, a host of second-generation song-swapping networks, including Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa, emerged to fill the void.

Altnet has already inked a licensing deal for the technology with one of the largest peer-to-peer companies, Sharman Networks, which is based in the Republic of Vanuatu and is the firm that distributes Kazaa. Altnet's software allows users to purchase licensed copies of music over the Kazaa network.

Several recipients of the letters predicted that Altnet's patent claims are likely to be challenged.

The technology at issue is "hashing" -- a method for assigning a unique tag or "hash" to a digital file. By comparing the hashes, rather than entire files, file-swapping software can quickly process users' requests for specific songs, movies or other files.

Sam Darwin, chief information officer of Miami-based Free Peers, acknowledged that the company uses hashing to identify files, saying the practice has been routine in the peer-to-peer community. "It's really common sense, which makes it hard for me to imagine that [the patent] would be defensible in court," Darwin said.

The law requires that an invention be novel, useful and non-obvious to experts in the field in order to qualify for a valid patent. Ian Clarke, founder of the peer-to-peer network Freenet, examined the patents cited by Altnet for an article he wrote in 2003.

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