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TBL versus Eolas

§ Browsers · New media industry

As Director of the W3C (not to mention inventor of HTML and the Web), Tim Berners-Lee has written to the US Patent and Trademark Office in protest against the Eolas ‘906 Patent.

In case you are unaware, the patent lays claim that Eolas invented the concept of browser plug-ins. Eolas tested the patent against Microsoft and won in the courts, the upshot being that future versions of Internet Explorer will be crippled for pages containing embedded media. This will affect RealAudio and RealVideo streaming, QuickTime video, Flash and Shockwave players, Adobe’s PDF document Reader and SVG Viewer, Sun’s Java plug-in, and all the rest besides. So far no other browser manufacturers have been targetted, but they too are at risk.

Appealing to common sense, Berners-Lee explains in his letter that:

The impact of the ‘906 patent reaches far beyond a single vendor and even beyond those who could be alleged to infringe the patent. The existence of the patent and associated licensing demands compels many developers of Web browsers, Web pages, and many other important components of the Web to deviate from the fundamental technical standards that enable the Web to function as a coherent system. In many cases, those who will be forced to incur the cost of modifying Web pages or software applications do not even themselves infringe the patent.

Berners-Lee goes on to contesting the validity of the patent, providing ample evidence of prior art:

For example, more than a year before the claims of the ‘906 patent was filed, a word processing program called Write, provided with Microsoft Windows 3.1, enabled users to embed into Write documents graphic images created with the Paint program. The Write program would then invoke the Paint program to display the illustration within the same window as the rest of the document. Thus even without considering the several prior art publications annexed to our Section 3.01 filing, it is apparent that the ‘906 patent added nothing to the art – it only applied a well known concept in the display of documents to the display of a particular kind of document – Web pages.

Let us hope that common sense prevails. Unfortunately that commodity seems in short supply at the US Patents and Trademarks office. Incidentally, I could not find a single mention of the Eolas situation on any of the UK broadsheet archives – very disappointing.