12 November 2003 The US Patent Office (USPO) is to re-examine a controversial patent following a personal appeal by Tim Berners-Lee, the head of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) and the inventor of HTML, one of the key enablers of the modern Internet.
The appeal followed an August 2003 court ruling in favour of the patent’s licensee, Eolas Technologies, against software giant Microsoft which threatened to wreak havoc with millions of web site owners around the world.
Eolas is the sole licensee of a patent filed in 1994 by the University of California. It covers the downloading of content over the Internet. Eolas had claimed that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser breached its patent and filed suit in 1999 for damages.
In response to the court ruling, Microsoft said that it would appeal against the decision and the $521 million in damages awarded to Eolas, but that it would not licence the technology. Instead, it said it would re-engineer the way its web browser works to skirt the Eolas patent.
However, this would also have forced web site owners worldwide to change the way their web sites handle downloads. Furthermore, it also opened up the threat of proprietary control of the Internet, if not by Eolas, then by Microsoft.
But Berners-Lee claims that the patent should never have been granted as there is substantial ‘prior art’ indicating that the patent is not original. In a 14-page submission to the USPO, he pointed to some of his original work on HTML as evidence.
In addition to donating his work on HTML and other web technologies for free, Berners-Lee has also worked as head of the W3C to ensure that a number of other technologies commonly used on the Internet can also be freely used — even where there are patents owned by companies.
In any one click, according to open source guru Bruce Perens, there are to 30 technologies that Berners-Lee has persuaded patent holders to allow anyone to use, royalty free. Such work by Berners-Lee has helped keep the Internet unencumbered from attempts at commercial control.