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Email users set to pay to use @

Image: Email users set to pay to use @
By our investigative reporter Sonia Freeman

Saturday, 1st Apr 2017 09:56 PM

Download the license agreement

Documents recently discovered in the personal archive of a former employee of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a consulting firm working for the US Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1970’s, suggest that with effect from 2021 email and Twitter users will have to pay every time they use the @ sign.

The licence, drawn up in March 1971 between Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) and Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation only licenses the use of the @ sign for communications between “computers and other electronic equipment and devices” until 23rd March 2021. When the license expires, someone, somewhere stands to make a fortune – and the losers will surely be everyone who uses email or Twitter.

ARPANET and the first email

The story starts with Robert Taylor, Head of Information Processing Techniques Office at the US government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Taylor had become frustrated by the fact that ARPA’s three mainframe computers, based in Santa Monica, Berkeley and MIT, were not connected.

In 1968, ARPA asked companies to bid to build an experimental network to connect the computers. As part of the proposal, it had been decided that packet switching (the process by which electronic communications are broken down into packets of data and sent in sequence) would be tried for the first time. 140 bids were received, although neither IBM nor AT&T participated. IBM believed the project would be in direct competition with their investment in mainframe computers, and AT&T didn't believe that packet switching would work. BBN won the bid with a 200-page proposal and they set about connecting the computers together via a network that became known as the ARPANET. This network laid the foundations of the modern internet.

By 1971, 19 computers across the US were linked. A computer engineer called Ray Tomlinson was employed by BBN to write programs that would make use of this connectivity. At the same time, Tomlinson developed a way to send electronic messages between computers. To do this, he used CPYNET, a command that sent files from one computer to another, and a series of electronic “pigeonholes”.

However, he needed a way to address the e-mails – to separate the recipient’s name from the name of the computer where the message was to be sent. He studied his ASR-33 teletype keyboard and selected the little-used @ symbol. He thought nothing of it, but a keen-eyed legal officer spotted it and insisted that BBN sought permission to use the symbol.

Who owns @?

The @ symbol has been in use for hundreds of years, but it was only when James B Hammond launched the Hammond 12 typewriter in 1905 that it first appeared on a keyboard. Upon his death, Hammond willed his patents, including the patent to use the @ sign as a mechanically typed symbol, to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The patents were then bought by Frederick Hepburn who gave the Hammond 12 a new name – the Varytyper. When Hepburn went bust in 1933, his company was bought by one Frank B Coxhead. Upon his death, the company was bought by the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation of Cleveland.

Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation was the owner of the patent to use the @ symbol in 1971, so this explains why the company’s name appears on the license.

The company moved to Los Angeles in 1978 and changed its name to AM International a year later. Many employees chose not to follow the company to the west coast and it is probable that this is when the company’s copy of the license went astray.

AM International filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982, but despite this, the license between BBN and Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation is still in force and upon its expiration it is almost inevitable that it will need to be renewed in some shape or form.

Who wins? Who loses?

It is likely that ownership of the @ symbol will be fiercely disputed by the biggest players on the corporate stage. Over 205 billion emails are sent and over 500 million tweets posted every day, so any new licensing agreements will involve lengthy and complex litigation and unprecedented sums of money. Whether the email service providers such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo will be willing to pay up is not known – they don’t know how much they are in for, but it is certain to be millions if not billions – nor whether they will try to recoup the cost from their users. They are certainly unlikely to swallow the cost, it is too large, so they are sure to pass it on to users. What is certain is that the era of free email as we know is set to end in 2021.

© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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