AOL quiet on use of new instant messaging patent

America Online Inc. (AOL) has recently acquired a U.S. patent for instant messaging (IM), potentially placing it in a position to edge out rival players and reap significant rewards from the booming chat market.

The patent, granted on Sept. 10, was awarded to AOL IM subsidiary ICQ and covers IM communications systems, an AOL spokesman said Thursday.

He added, however, that the company isn't announcing whether or not it has any plans to use the patent.

The patent application was originally filed in 1996, before ICQ was acquired by AOL in 1998. The ICQ chat client now claims over 135 million users while AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM) claims over 100 million.

Although AOL is already a leading player in the IM market, its recently acquired patent could potentially allow it to dominate the market, either by going after rival players or imposing licensing fees.

The language of the patent, which includes a claim over a "communications system comprising of a communications network" and the ability to monitor whether a user is connected to the network appears broad. However, without expert examination it is unclear exactly what claims AOL has over the current market.

According to Bill Norvell, a partner with Beirne, Maynard & Parsons LLP in Houston who specializes in intellectual property and patent claims, patents can be enforced from the date issued. However, the 20 year life of the patent is measured from the filing date.

While some patent holders chose to sue patent infringers upon issue of their patent, others never seek claim over infringing parties, Norvell noted.

The patent comes at a time when IM players such as Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AOL are all gunning not only for the broad consumer market, but for the nascent corporate messaging market as well.

A representative for Microsoft said Thursday that the company is not commenting on AOL's new patent. No one from Yahoo was immediately available to comment.

Still, the Dulles, Virginia-based Internet giant has not yet said whether or not it will use the patent. The company holds numerous patents covering varying aspects of its intellectual property.

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