Friday, September 30, 2005

This Isn't Good

Apparently, the US Patent & Trademark Office indicated recently that it will be reaffirming the validity of US Patent 5,838,906. The patent is owned by the University of California, with licensing through Eolas Technologies. Eolas used this patent to get a $521 million judgment against Microsoft. Microsoft's case is pending before the Supreme Court, but there's no indication which way that will go.

So what is this patent and why is this a bad thing? The patent was filed in 1994 and granted in 1998. The title is, "Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document." What does this mean? Basically, it covers browser plugins. So, if you're using Internet Explorer and you click on a link to a Word document, IE launches a plugin to display the document inside your browser. Or if you're using Mozilla Firefox and click on a link to a movie, the mplayer or Quicktime plugin launch and play the movie inside your browser. Every browser uses plugins like this.

This essentially gives Eolas a stranglehold on the future of the web. They can refuse to license the patent to a browser company. Any company trying to release a browser without plugins wouldn't stand much of a chance. And the fact that the original judgment was half a billion dollars is simply ridiculous. Computer software is incredibly complex and can involve the use of hundreds or thousands of patents, most of which are not enforced. If you had a hundred or so patents like this with half a billion dollars in judgment, Microsoft wouldn't be around for very much longer.

And, of course, I haven't even touched on the lack of validity of the patent. It turns out a programmer named Pei Wei demonstrated the Viola browser in May 1993, a year before the patent was filed. So why wasn't this considered prior art (which would make the patent invalid)? The demonstration was done on a standalone computer and was not hooked up to a network. Never mind that any computer science researcher understands that a client/server demonstration can apply to a network just as easily as on a standalone computer.

It's cases like this that make me worry about getting more into the technology industry. It's starting to feel like anything I can do in the future will violate a patent. Perhaps that should be my business plan. Spend a month or so coming up with something technical sounding enough to get a very obscure patent, then wait for a company to put years of work and a lot of money to develop a profitable application of it (not knowing about my patent). Then, after they've done all the work and I've done very little, sue them for millions, then retire young and wealthy. Sounds like a plan to me...


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