Sunday, August 24, 2003

Time to root for Microsoft

Court awards $520+ million victory over Microsoft to Eolas; the latter claims it owns a patent on the idea of a web browser plug-in. Riiight. Here's the patent, filed October 17, 1994; excerpts from the abstract:

A system allowing a user of a browser program on a computer connected to an open distributed hypermedia system to access and execute an embedded program object. The program object is embedded into a hypermedia document much like data objects. The user may select the program object from the screen. Once selected the program object executes on the user's (client) computer or may execute on a remote server or additional remote computers in a distributed processing arrangement. After launching the program object, the user is able to interact with the object as the invention provides for ongoing interprocess communication between the application object (program) and the browser program. ...

Oh, give me a break. Here's what this jargon-laden hot air basically says:

"You've got a web browser, right? Now you can load program extensions into it."

But the notion of extensible software is practically as old as programming. Whenever you develop any kind of application or platform, the obvious next step is to make it extensible. See: Emacs Lisp, Photoshop plugins, CGI, and more research papers than I can list, all of which predate Eolas's patent.

The only novel aspect of this system is the fact that it downloads content over a wide-area network. However, a patent does not have to be novel, useful, or non-obvious; it has to be novel, useful, and non-obvious. And if you're familiar with both the web and extensible software, the idea of combining them is completely obvious. The invention of the web would not justify a patent on "Method and Apparatus for Tying Your Shoelaces in a Web Browser", or (despite one local company's claims) "Method and Apparatus for Pushing a Button in a Web Browser". Nor does it justify a patent on "Method and Apparatus for Loading Program Extensions in a Web Browser", which is what this patent amounts to.

Notice, furthermore, that the patent's assignee is the Regents of the University of California. According to recent articles in the California Aggie and Forbes, Michael D. Doyle, CEO of Eolas (and first inventor on the patent filing), was a professor at UC San Francisco when he developed the technology. No doubt the other two authors were co-workers or students at UCSF. So, let's see if I've got this right:

  1. Taxpayers paid for Doyle et al. to develop a tweak on web browser technology, a tweak so trivially obvious that it was independently developed by several other groups around the same time.
  2. Doyle et al. succeed in patenting this "invention", and spin off a company based on this taxpayer-funded development.
  3. Years later, Doyle et al. sue Microsoft and make vague threats w.r.t. other companies developing browsers.
  4. Court awards Doyle et al. $520+ million; if paid, the award will be shared with the University of California, but a healthy chunk will go to the "inventors", while the public pays the real price: chilling effects on browser development everywhere.

Yet another boneheaded outcome of our present patent law system.

Eolas claims it will "probably" not go after Free Software projects. But this abstention is not a matter of principle --- it's just because projects like Mozilla and KDE don't have Microsoft's deep pockets. Furthermore, there's nothing to stop them from going after for-profit companies (like Red Hat or SuSE) who distribute Free Software browsers with their products. A defeat for Microsoft, in this case, means a defeat for Free Software. Fortunately, Microsoft plans to appeal. I'm rooting for them all the way.

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