IM owned by AOL?

The sky-is-falling headline from MSNBC reads “AOL patents instant messaging”. But from the way that Gregory Aharonian of Internet Patent News describes the patent, it may be even worse than that.

The claim is it’s a system where you have a network; you have a way to monitor who’s on the network; and if you want to talk to them you hook them up. If you’re doing something like that, you’re potentially infringing.

That means that the patent (granted to AOL subsidiary ICQ earlier this year) could affect not only instant messaging applications, but also peer-to-peer systems and foundation technologies like Apple’s open-sourced Rendezvous (a.k.a. the “ZeroConf” IETF standard), which is being adopted by many hardware and software companies to auto-discover not only devices but also people. From Apple’s Rendezvous page:

The new iChat instant messaging app can use Rendezvous to discover and directly connect with other iChat users on the network, adding colleagues and friends to the list when they enter the network and removing them when they leave, all automatically.

Can AOL own plug-and-play for people? I doubt it, as there’s lots of prior art — in high-school I used to play on a mainframe that let you see who was on the network and chat with them, and I recall similar features in BBSs — and big guns who aren’t just going to roll over if AOL Time Warner starts throwing their weight around. | AOL patent (full text) | MSNBC: AOL patents instant messaging | News.com: Patent creates IM wrinkle | Out-Law.com: AOL has patent for instant messaging | TERM-talk: Instant messaging circa 1973