September 19, 2003 3:53 PM PDT

Eolas suit may spark HTML changes

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As anxiety builds throughout the Web over the patent threatening Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, the Web's leading standards group is considering modifying the medium's lingua franca itself, HTML, to address the same threat.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is on the verge of forming a patent advisory group, or PAG, in response to the Eolas patent suit, according to sources close to the consortium. That group would conduct a public investigation into the legal ramifications of the patent on Hypertext Markup Language, the signature W3C standard that governs how most of the Web is written, and other specifications related to it.

News.context

What's new:
The World Wide Web Consortium is on the verge of forming a patent advisory group in response to the Eolas patent suit.

Bottom line:
Fallout from Eolas' patent victory over Microsoft threatens to hit Web developers and HTML itself.

For more info:
More Eolas patent news

The W3C declined to comment on the PAG, but a representative acknowledged that the group had yet to conduct any formal investigation into the legal issues surrounding the patent and HTML.

Eolas' $521 million patent victory over Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser has sent shockwaves through the Web and the software industry as a whole. While Microsoft has pledged to appeal the ruling, it has already prepared for a worst-case scenario, as have companies such as Macromedia and Sun Microsystems whose technologies rely heavily on IE's ability to play plug-ins--the capability found to infringe on the Eolas patent.

Now the W3C is said to be contemplating changes to HTML, considered one of the consortium's more mature and settled specifications.

The potential problem for HTML is that it describes a way of summoning content located on a server other than the one serving the page in question. The "object" and "embed" tags in HTML, consortium members worry, may fall under the wording of the Eolas patent.

Options the PAG could recommend include a technical workaround or new wording in HTML and related specifications warning that authors who implement the tags in question should contact the patent holders and take out a license, if necessary.

The HTML PAG could also, as have previous PAGs in other working groups, launch a drive to discover "prior art," or technologies older than the Eolas patent that could potentially invalidate it in court.

The W3C established the PAG system after its P3P privacy preferences recommendation was threatened by patents. The groups have since been formed to respond to patent disputes among VoiceXML working group members. The PAG policy was codified with the rest of the W3C's patent-averse policy, which was ratified in March after a rancorous debate.

Eolas founder and sole employee Mike Doyle said the W3C was right to take a closer look at HTML with respect to his patent.

"If you read the trial testimony, you'll see references several times to experts who testified that browsers that support the 'embed' and 'object' tags are covered by the patent," Doyle said in an interview. "You have to look at the details on a case-by-case basis, but the testimony at the trial was pretty complete."

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