30 October 2003 Tim Berners-Lee, head of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), has intervened in the legal fight between Microsoft and Eolas Technologies, the two-man company that claims ownership of a key technology for handling downloads over the Internet.
Eolas won $521 million in damages in August against Microsoft in a patent infringement case. It claimed that its 1999 patent, which was filed in 1994, infringed its technology for “a system allowing a user of a browser program… to access and execute an embedded program object”.
However, in a letter and 14-page citation, Berners-Lee has urged the US Patent Office to invalidate the patent, arguing that there is substantial evidence of ‘prior art’, use of similar techniques before 1994 when the patent was filed.
Berners-Lee is credited with the 1989 development of the key technologies behind the worldwide web, the hypertext markup language (HTML) and the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). Instead of seeking to profit from those developments, Berners-Lee has aggressively upheld the principle that key Internet technologies should be free.
In response to its courtroom loss, Microsoft has said it will appeal and in the meantime will redesign its web browser to ensure that it does not infringe Eolas’ patent and will therefore not be compelled to pay a licensing fee to the company.
Makers of rival browsers, such as Opera, Apple with Safari, Konqueror and Mozilla would also need to redesign this element of their browsers and also face the threat of legal action.
However, Berners-Lee points out that this will also compel millions of web site operators to re-design their web sites accordingly, causing much disruption around the world, even though they are not infringing the Eolas patent.
If the patent is not withdrawn and the appeal fails, Berners-Lee fears fragmentation of the web. “The web functions only on the strength of its common standards. The costs of widely divergent implementation of standards is borne by all who rely on the web,” he wrote in his letter to the US Patent Office.