September 24, 2003 6:31 PM PDT

W3C to study patent's threat to HTML

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With a patent threat looming over the Web's de facto standard browser, the Worldwide Web Consortium launched a strategy group to evaluate the implications for the Web's standard markup language.

As previously reported, the W3C conceived the patent advisory group to study the threat posed by the Eolas plug-in patent to the Web's core markup language, HTML and related W3C recommendations.

"We created this group with the idea of having our members come together first of all to look at how that patent will impact our specification, and look at what we can do about it," said Philipp Hoschka, the W3C's deputy director for Europe and head of the W3C Interaction Domain. "We need to get input from members and from the legal staffs of our members to analyze the intricacies there."

The Eolas patent has roiled the Web since a federal district court jury slapped Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser with a $521 million patent infringement judgment, one of the largest in history.

Fear of the patent has quickly spread to other browser makers, which also provide the patented ability to launch plug-in applications within their browsers' windows. It's also hit makers of those plug-ins, such as Macromedia, along with the W3C itself.

As Hoschka indicated, the plug-in patent advisory group will have legal as well as technical questions to answer. Previous patent advisory groups at the W3C have challenged patents by identifying "prior art," or technologies predating a patent that can invalidate it.

But the judge in the Eolas case refused to admit what Microsoft's supporters thought was ample prior art in the form of the Viola browser, which is nearly as old as the Web itself.

Previous patent advisory groups, like that formed to address patents claimed on the consortium's Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), have had luck getting patent-holding W3C members to grant royalty-free licenses for the use of their technologies.

This patent advisory group will face a special challenge, as Eolas is not a W3C member.

Not only that, but the W3C has so far failed to make contact with Eolas founder and patent-holder Mike Doyle.

"He hasn't returned our calls," W3C representative Janet Daly said. "He's been contacted by W3C, and we would be happy to hear back from him, but the W3C has to focus now on what's necessary for the specification."

The patent advisory group has posted its charter, which sets a 90-day deadline for completing its work.


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