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The Eolas Patent: Don't Be a Victim

Even if you're all for sticking it to Microsoft, you'd better keep a close eye on the Eolas case. If Eolas is allowed to enforce this patent, Microsoft won't be the only one paying: Web developers and Web consumers will pay a dear price, and Eolas has even more in store.

y now, most Web developers know that Eolas and the University of California (UC) sued Microsoft over a patent infringement related to the <applet>, <embed>, and <object> tags used to launch external applications embedded in Internet Explorer (IE). The lawsuit claimed that the idea to seamlessly embed and interact with external applications via the World Wide Web was invented by Michael Doyle when he was the director of the UC academic computing center. UC applied for a patent for this idea, and later granted Eolas (founded by Doyle) exclusive rights to the pending patent in 1995. Even back in 1995, the patentability of the idea was seriously questioned by a large number of people (for an interesting slice of history, see http://lists.w3.org). The content of many of those messages indicates that, even then, most people didn't believe the U.S. Patent Office would actually issue the patent, because the concept of embedding one application in another certainly wasn't new or unique.

Microsoft lost the patent lawsuit, and was fined $521 million dollars. Microsoft plans to appeal the ruling immediately. Many people hope that Microsoft will win on appeal. Others, applauding the ruling, feel that Microsoft got what it deserved, and hope the ruling stands on appeal. While the outcome of the appeal is important for future patent cases, whether Microsoft wins in the long run doesn't change one fact: the lawsuit has produced nearly immediate and adverse effects.

Adverse Effects
The ruling is likely to affect you—either as a Web developer, or as a Web consumer. First, despite the fact that Eolas' lawsuit targeted only Microsoft, every other commercial browser on the market that can run embedded content seamlessly is in infringement as well, and will eventually have to do something to solve the problem. Therefore, if Eolas wins the appeal, Netscape, Opera, and Sun will have to make changes to their browsers as well.

To avoid infringing on Eolas' patent, and to limit the possibility of future damages, Microsoft has announced it will alter the way IE works, so that such embedded applications won't be "seamless." Instead, IE will pop up a message box before launching such content. Users would have to click OK to see the content. Alternatively, users can change a new IE advanced setting, which will defeat the prompt permanently—but also denies IE the ability to show the embedded content unless users explicitly provide permission.

Here's the relevant text from the Microsoft announcement.

"The solution developed by Microsoft has two main parts:

  • First, Microsoft will make minor changes to Internet Explorer's handling of some Web pages that use ActiveX Controls, such as Macromedia Flash, Apple QuickTime, RealNetworks RealOne, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Sun Java Virtual Machine and Microsoft Windows Media Player. It is currently anticipated that this change will be deployed by early next year. If Web developers have not updated their Web pages using the techniques suggested by Microsoft and others, users may see a simple dialog box before the browser loads the ActiveX Control.
  • Second, Microsoft and other industry partners are working to provide documentation for Web developers that describe how to author Web pages so the dialog box would not be necessary."

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