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Ok, not really, and they have far too many patents in their arsenal to pursue that course…but they were recently on the receiving end of some major David vs. Goliath action. Instead of a stone for a weapon, Eolas used a patent governing plugins. The federal court jury found in favor of Eolas and the University of California (Eolas was founded as a spinoff from CEO Michael Doyle’s UC resarch group - the patent in question lists Dr. Doyle as one of the inventors and UC Oakland as the assignee) and decided that Microsoft must pay $520.6 milion to them in damages.
“Administrators of the University of California, which holds the patent and licensed the technology exclusively to Doyle’s company, applauded the decision.
‘“This verdict is a significant landmark in defining and protecting Internet technology whose benefits literally reach the whole world,” James E. Holst, the university’s general counsel, said in a statement. “As a public institution that reinvests its licensing revenue in its larger research mission, we are gratified by the jury’s recognition that UC and Eolas must be fairly compensated for use of its patented technology.”’
Of course the injunction against Microsoft’s continued use of plug-in technology that relies on or builds upon the patent could have some, well, interesting effects. Obviously, while Microsoft announced that they will appeal the decision, they have to re-design their Internet Explorer product extensively. The amount of embedded web content that this will impact is monstrous. Basically any content on a web page (such as video, animation, audio, Active-X content, and yes this would include flash) that Explorer relies on a plug-in to show in the browser window would be unviewable in the new Internet Explorer. Finally no more looping, pulsing flash advertisements! Another possible positive note; as long as they’re having to rebuild IE from the ground up (well just about at least) they might as well finally make a version that is web standards compliant. So the next time you allow Microsoft onto your machine to update Internet Explorer, you might just find that alot of web sites stop working like they used to. Eolas seems so far to be unwilling to license their technology to Microsoft, but I suspect that if the appeals process fails Microsoft will offer to pay, and probably pay dearly to get a license from Eolas. I’m not sure that Eolas will give them one though, not if an email between Dr. Doyle and PBS’s Robert X. Cringley is any indication:
“…What if we were to just say no? Or, what if some other big player were to acquire or merge with us? What if only one best-of-breed browser could run embedded plug-ins, applets, ActiveX controls, or anything like them, and it wasn’t IE? How competitive would the other browsers be without those capabilities? How would that change the current dynamics in the Industry?
“…Just think of how we could use this patent to re-invigorate and expand the competitive landscape in this recently-moribund industry. What if we could do what the DOJ couldn’t, and in the process make Eolas and everybody else, possibly excluding MS, richer? Wouldn’t Eolas stand to profit more in such a scenario than any kind of pre-trial settlement could provide? Wouldn’t everybody else?”
Of course speaking of the case and web standards…there are a number of “small” nagging issues unresolved as yet from this case:the web and the other browsers. As of yet no one else has heard anything from Eolas regarding any of the other browsers who use plug-ins (Mozilla, Apple, Opera) In the mean time the W3C called an Ad Hoc Meeting to discuss the recent court decision, and what impact this will have on the web. Microsoft reportedly presented several options it is considering which were discussed. A public mailing list was set up to facilitate communications between all interested parties.
So right now Microsoft is moving ahead to comply with the court ruling. Everyone else is waiting. And this all comes to pass because of patents on software, a monster the industry helped create in the 80’s, which the PTO has never had the expertise or manpower examine thuroughly, and have absolutely no possible hope of straightening out now. Ironically this comes on the eve of EU’s vote on allowing software and business practises to be patented. Hmmm… as I recall Microsoft was a proponant of that… wonder if they’ll change their tune and support the currently legislated EU patent law - “mathematical methods, schemes and rules for mental activity, methods of doing business and programs for computers are not patentable inventions.”