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Jury to Eolas: Nobody owns the interactive web

A decision to strike down patents to the "Interactive Web" is an important victory for the networked commons.

As Joe Mullin reported at Wired earlier tonight, a Texas jury has struck down a company’s claim to own the interactive web. The decision in this case comes after more than a decade of legal wrangling that has drawn in some of the biggest technology companies and retailers in the world. As Timothy Lee observed at Ars Technica, Eolas, “a patent troll that has been shaking down technology companies for the better part of a decade, now faces the prospect of losing the patent.”

It’s a rare reversal of two software patents (7,599,985 and 5,838,906), that shouldn’t have been granted in the first place. It’s also an important victory for the open Internet.

As a result of the decision, the eight companies that were resisting the patent lawsuits won’t have to pay anything to Eolas. If Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Amazon, Adobe, JC Penney, CDW Corp., and Staples had lost the patent infringement suit, they would have been subject to more than $600 million in damages.

The Eolas patent case represents one of the most infamous claims to ownership of the commons that grew up in universities, garages and labs in the early 1990s.

Here’s a quick summary of the history: the ’906 patent was applied for in 1994 and granted to Eolas in 1998. Eolas sued Microsoft in 1999. Microsoft lost that trial and settled with Eolas. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Microsoft both petitioned the U.S. Patent Office to reconsider patent. The Patent Office upheld it, both times.

The Eolas patent covers “embedded application” in a browser, a broad description of a function that was typical of client-server systems of the time. The patent was then used by Eolas founder Michael Doyle to make a broad claim about the invention of interactivity on the web, based upon a medical imaging application that enabled a user to manipulate images on a web browser with computation occurring in the background on a server.

The case appears to have turned on the demonstration of prior art by the defense. A computer science student at the University of California at Berkeley, Pei-Yuan Wei, testified during the trial that he had conceived of making interactive web features as early as 1991, including the creation of the Viola Web browser. Viola, first released in April 1992, was the first web browser with inline graphics, scripting, tables and a stylesheet. The web browser was in development at O’Reilly in 1992-1994. Another UC Berkeley student, Scott Silvey, testified that he had demonstrated such features to engineers at Sun Microsystems in 1993.

That testimony, when combined with that of web pioneers like Eric Bina, the co-founder of Netscape, and Dave Raggett, who invented the HTML “embed” tag, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was enough to convince this jury.

“It was ahead of its time,” testified Berners-Lee. “The things Pei was doing would later be done in Java.”

One interesting detail that emerged in the case was that the U.S. Patent Office didn’t have access to the Internet in 1994 and was apparently forbidden from going on the Internet in 1997, which would make research into prior art in cyberspace somewhat of a challenge.

Patent trolls continue to be a major issue for software companies and the technology industry as a whole in 2012, as an episode of “This American Life” on when patents attack effectively communicated.

As Mike Masnick points out at TechDirt, while today was an important victory for the networked commons and civil society, Eolas still has a lot of settlement money in hand to pursue an appeal.

That said, the jury’s decision to invalidate Eolas’ claims of ownership regarding the basic technology that enables access to the interactive web means the company won’t be suing anyone for a while.

Here’s to the Open Web.

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