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.

#26 Re: Reality Flash: This is bad news

by jgraham

Tuesday October 7th, 2003 3:42 PM

You are replying to this message

Will it be bad if the Mozilla Foundtation are asked to pay for a license? Yes, clearly it will. But, unless I have missed something critical, that hasn't happened yet. So at the moment it's not clear whether this is as bad as it seems or not. It is certianly an inconvenience for Internet Explorer users but, at the moment, that's all that it is. There is no need to panic yet. If Eolas do decide to go after the smaller players then it will be a real problem (in this situation, would the Open Source nature of Mozilla be an advantage? After all even if the Mozilla Foundation were to go bunkrupt over some hypothetical settlement, others could continue to maintain and distribute a sutiably modified form of the products).

Unfortunately, the idea of an internet unencumbered by patents is a delusion. In reality a huge number of pieces of the internet are subject to patents and the reason that we don't notice is that people choose not to enforce them. However, that's an unmaintainable state, and thinking that if this appeal is won, the problem of patents on the internet will go away is unrealistic. The fact is that the best possible outcome in this case is that legislators will become aware of the problems caused by this type of patent and make the problem disappear at it's root, by making this type of 'innovation' unpatentable. This may be wishful thinking, but it's natural to ignore or misunderstand a problem when it is entirely theoretical, but take very rapid action to combat it when the problem directly affects you.