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Plugins & <object> - Illegal?

August 28, 2003

Via Slashdot come news that Microsoft has lost a court battle against what appears to be a small, opportunistic company called .

The suit contested that Microsoft’s use of embeddable technologies (plug-ins, essentially) violated a patent granted in 1998. The W3C convened an ad hoc meeting which resulted in a new public forum on the issue, and a recommendation that the web community begin thinking of potential ways to deal with this.

The upshot of the ruling is that embeddable technologies, everything from applets to plug-ins to the <object> tag, will be under scrutiny for patent violation. As Ronaldo Ferraz put it, HTML supported the <object> tag by that point, so how come Microsoft couldn’t come up with examples of prior art?

People have been saying for years that the U.S. patent system is broken. Interesting to think that it took a lawsuit to prevent the <img> tag from being deprecated in XHTML 2.0.


Reader Comments

1
zlog says:
August 28, 01h

“Interesting to think that it took a lawsuit to prevent the tag from being deprecated in XHTML 2.0.”

You mean we have something to *thank* Microsoft for?

I don’t believe I just said that…

2
Eric says:
August 28, 01h

IANAL, but I do know that the prior art defense is not nearly as strong as a defense as the tech community thinks it is. I think we can assume that MSFT had a throng of very intelligent lawyers on a case they ended up losing half a billion dollars on.

Abolish software patents, extend drug patents.

3
Jai says:
August 28, 01h

I dunno about thanking MS… maybe we should be thanking Eolas… although I dunno how big a deal depreciating the IMG tag is… Does anyone have any concerns/thoughts on how this will effect such things as SWF’s (FLASH files),Shockwave, or Applets? Will the end user (designer/developer) suffer from this ruling, or just the browser companies (and I use the word JUST loosely, due to the trickle effect- is this a threat to the life/development of Mozilla)?

Props to Eolas, though. If you have a patent, you really should defend it. That’s why you spent the time to get the patent in the first place- ownership of concept/product. It’ll be interseting to hear the W3C’s conclusion.

4
Matt says:
August 28, 02h

Utterly ridiculous. Really.

5
Dave S. says:
August 28, 02h

“Utterly ridiculous. Really.”

Very much so. Software patents are a joke. Make sure not to miss the page I linked ‘Eolas’ to - the very bottom (“a final note”) contains another little absurdity that nicely characterizes this company. Hence my usage of the word ‘opportunistic.’

6
Bob says:
August 28, 02h

It would seem to me that as they only got the patent in ‘98, and embedable elements such as plug-ins were around WAAAAAAY before that, MS could probably win on an appeal, if they found a judge who is even halfway tech-savvy. (Not that I’m rooting for Microsoft… but here I am.)

THAT seems to me to be one of the big issues here. More and more courtroom brawls over patents and copyright involve relatively new, and sometimes bleeding-edge technology, and I’m not convinced the judicial system, as a whole, has enough of a clue about it to make valid judgements, without even considering Joe Q. Public on a jury.

I mean, to get to the position in a federal court where most of these battles take place, your average judge has to have gone to law school… what, at least 25-30 years ago? None of this existed then. And just how many of them keep up with current technology, let alone case law about it? My fear is that by the time lawyers that have grown up with this technology get to the bench, there’ll be so much BAD case law on the books, it’ll be impossible to get out of this quagmire.

7
haze says:
August 28, 03h

i wouldnt put to much emphasis on this. although the concept would be great for xhtml 2.0, we all must remember the outcome of compuserve and .GIF files.

8
Ronaldo says:
August 28, 08h

It’s interesting to note that the patent was filed in 1994, and it says that the embedded objects might be images, sounds, video, etc. However, Tim Berners-Lee WorldWideWeb browser, which was developed in 1990, was already able to embed images. Also, according to a document[1] found in the W3C site itself, it was able to interact with other kinds of embedded documents as well. By Eolas’ claim, it seems that even the <img> tag would be a violation of the patent in modern browsers. Its terms are so broad it probably even touches what Ted Nelson wrote about hypertext systems back in 1965.

[1] http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/FAQ.html

9
SFT says:
August 29, 01h

Dave,

The stylized e is as silly as the patent? I don’t think so. Trademarks are a whole different ballgame from patents, and something that’s a strong part of your visual identity SHOULD be protected. There’s certainly a line to be drawn—I think Google’s C&Ds to gewgle.com were quite silly, for example—but for something as important as a logo, isn’t important for designs (even obvious ones like the e) to be exclusive to the original designers?

SFT

(PS — I think the patent is moronic, of course.)

10
August 29, 03h

Extend drug patents? Are you mad? Drugs protected by patents bring with them artificially high prices resulting in third world countries being unable to afford them, dispite the fact that they can easily be manufactured at a fraction of the cost. Sorry, very ot :-)

11
michael says:
August 29, 05h

Eric, do you understand that pharmaceutical companies spend HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS (about 119million per year combined) on R&D, BILLIONS on marketing, BILLIONS in lobbying, and rake in TENS OF TRILLIONS of dollars on the drugs they produce. They have one of the highest profit margins in the industry and together spend more in marketing in a year than Anheiser Bush, Nike, and Coca Cola combined. Governments other than the US have put strict controls on the prices knowing how these companies are gouging their US customer’s. US customer’s continue to pay such exhorbatent prices for drugs that people must often choose between getting a medication and how much food they can buy. Not to mention the hardship that drug patent’s cause for third world countries with high disease rates. There’s no plausible argument for extending drug patents.

Now software patents are reaking havoc like drug patents have been. It’s the rampant abuse of the patent system, the inability of the patent office to deny patents, and the failure of the courts to protect the public good from fraudulent patents. Patents have essentially become a license to print money. Get a vague enough patent passed through the system, a good lawyer, some C-n-D’s get passed out and let the cash roll in until someone big enough stops you. Then on to the next patent.

We need major reform of the patent system but there’s no imputus in the government for that change to occur. The patent system helps drive business and business is so significantly entrenched in the government through all those high priced lobbyists that it’s unlikely we could get any significant patent reform that didn’t INCREASE the rights of businesses and extend the patent law well outside of the public good.

12
Martin says:
August 29, 06h

What if - MS wanted to loose this lawsuit? Think abut it for a moment… MS has all the money to pay royalties/licences… but OpenSource competitors don’t, by nature… So what happens if this continues? MS looses some money, but can continue, the OpenSource competition looses everything. So maybe this outcome was accepteaböe for MS?

Just a thought…

13
August 29, 07h

How is it possible for Eolas to “invent” something which is then used by companies like Microsoft and the former Netscape, withouth them paying the license fees?

“First demonstrated publicly in 1993, this invention lifted the glass for the first time from the hypermedia browser, enabling Web browsers for the first time to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications.”
http://www.eolas.com/technology.html

14
Arikawa says:
August 29, 08h

They also claim to have trademarked the phrase “invented here.” (see copyright lines in the footer of every page)

Watch out Al Franken.

15
August 29, 08h

“By Eolas’ claim, it seems that even the tag would be a violation of the patent in modern browsers. Its terms are so broad it probably even touches what Ted Nelson wrote about hypertext systems back in 1965.”

Don’t read their press releases. Read the patent. Reading the patent, I think that the <img> tag as typically implemented is not in violation.

The patent covers *one* method for embedding *programs* in a hypertext browser. Anything that does not embed programs, or does so without using the method named in the patent, is not restricted by this patent.

Presented with evidence from both sides, a jury has ruled that Microsoft has used the patented invention without authorization. We shouldn’t assume that other programs infringe the same patent just because they have similar features. The programs and the patent will need to be studied by legal and technical experts to determine that.

I lack the training and knowledge to read the patent and understand its implications. The patent is written in legal code, just like software is written in computer code. Neither can be fully understood without significant study, and reference to manuals and examples.

I agree that most software patents are overly broad and should not be granted, and that this Eolas patent is a likely example. But please, don’t make assumptions about what’s covered by the patent without even trying to read the patent and the related laws. Then you’re just as guilty as a judge who rules on software without understanding the software or its technological context.

16
Eric says:
August 29, 08h

Sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack the discussion, I was merely trying to point out that software patents aren’t the only thing wrong with the system. Anyone curious about drug patent extensions can find many better places to discuss via Google.

17
Ronaldo says:
August 29, 09h

“I lack the training and knowledge to read the patent and understand its implications. The patent is written in legal code, just like software is written in computer code. Neither can be fully understood without significant study, and reference to manuals and examples.”

So do I, which I forgot to point in my comments. I read the patent, but I don’t claim to understand it fully. I guess I should just wait for the W3C conclusions. :-)

18
August 29, 12h

This is ridiculous.

On an aside:
Eolas means “knowledge” in Irish. hah.
Michael Doyle sounds like an Irish guy to me.

19
Joshua Hore says:
August 30, 03h

Patent laws in relation to software are crazy the world over:
http://www.listener.co.nz/default,442.sm
“If you can do currency conversions, file customs electronically, or calculate air, sea or truck freight, then you must obtain a license from us,”
Maddness.