Microsoft Details Changes to Internet Explorer in Wake of Eolas Suit, Mozilla Foundation Issues Statement

Tuesday October 7th, 2003

In August, Microsoft lost a patent infringement lawsuit filed by Eolas Technologies Inc., a spinoff of the University of California. The jury in the case decided that Microsoft's support for ActiveX controls, plug-ins and Java applets in its Internet Explorer browser infringes on United States Patent 5,838,906, owned by the University of California and licensed to Eolas in 1994. Microsoft was ordered to pay $521 million to Eolas and the University and also change the way Internet Explorer works. The software giant is appealing.

In the wake of the ruling, the World Wide Web Consortium held an ad-hoc meeting on the patent and later set up a Patent Advisory Group to investigate the issue.

Yesterday, Microsoft published some documents outlining the changes it will make to Internet Explorer to stop the program from infringing on the patent. These changes — which essentially amount to forcing the user to press an OK button before loading each ActiveX control — are accompanied by some steps that Web developers can take to allow their controls to continue working normally. These include providing any data required by controls inline (the patent only covers plug-in—like technologies that access external data) or creating controls using a script. Apple has supplied similar guidelines for avoiding the changes when embedding QuickTime movies, Macromedia has some advice for sites that use Flash, Shockwave or Authorware and RealNetworks is providing information for those who embed RealMedia presentations in their pages.

The Mozilla Foundation also issued a statement on the Eolas patent yesterday. Noting that the "matter highlights the degree to which web browser software is critical to the user experience of the web," Mitchell Baker assures Web developers that the changes proposed by Microsoft and others should be backwards-compatible with all current and future Mozilla browsers. To the best of our knowledge, Mozilla's plug-in implementation will not have to be changed as the ruling only applies to Microsoft. It is not yet known whether Eolas plans to take action against the Mozilla Foundation.

Thanks to everyone who has sent us information about this issue over the last few weeks.

#10 Re: Re: Patent

by jgraham

Tuesday October 7th, 2003 11:34 AM

You are replying to this message

At a rough guess, they're not. However, there is an important distinction between patents and trademarks - in order to enforce a trademark, you must go after all parties who violate your mark, but you are not required to sue anyone who uses your patented technology, or license it under the same terms to all parties. This sounds odd, but it really makes a lot of sense; for example one may choose to charge for the use of some technology when used by companies, but distribute it to free for non-profits. Equally, one may choose not to license a particular technology to a party that it felt to pose a business threat, or for any other arbitary reason. Therefore, although Netscape plugin technology may violate this patent, the holder may choose not to go after AOL/TW or the Mozilla Foundation.

Whether or not this patent applies to Netscape, the best that can possibly come of this issue is an increased awareness of the special issues surrounding software patents. In this case, there have been several independent implementations of an idea that is a pretty obvious extension of the idea of loading remote images in a document. Moreover, the only remarkable thing about this patent is that the owner has chosen to enforce it. Microsoft, for example hold a <a href="<…5860073&RS=PN/5860073>">patent on CSS</a>, which they could potentially use against Mozilla (this makes it all the more galling that the Marketing department won't let the IE group release a less broken CSS implementation). One of the <a href="<…1,211&RS=PN/4,821,211>">patents</a> that IBM have claimed SCO are infringing describes itself as being for "navigating among program menus using a graphical menu tree" (although the specifics of the patent restrict it somewhat). Big software companies hold a *lot* of patents, but they choose not to enforce them. If, for whatever reason a patent war broke out, then it would essentially be a disaster for everyone - all software innovation would stop because almost anything that was written would violate one patent or another. The only possible winners from this situation are big companies who hold so many patents that they are effectively at stalemate with each other, and speculative companies like Eolas who have no interest in the actual technologies, so are not in violation of any other patents. Software patents as they currently stand do not create innovation, but have the potential to destroy it.

As an aside; I fail to undersatnd why a dialog box without a [Cancel] button makes downloading embedded content any less automatic than having no dialog box. But then I am not a lawyer and my grasp of law could be termed 'non existant'. The examples of patents above are specifically US patents, although that is not my native country.