Patents

Any reader of my blog should not be surprised by the fact that I think software patents are pretty bogus. So y’all will forgive a little rant brought on by the examining the (pretty bogus) eolas patent.

Here is the introduction to the patent, taken from eolas “technology” page:

The Web Application Platform
Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document

U.S. Patent 5,838,906, Filed in October, 1994, Issued November 17, 1998. Inventors: Michael D. Doyle, David C. Martin and Cheong Ang

First demonstrated publicly in 1993, this invention lifted the glass for the first time from the hypermedia browser, enabling Web browsers for the first time to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications. The patent covers Web browsers that support such currently popular technologies as ActiveX components, Java applets, and Navigator plug-ins. Eolas’ advanced browser technology makes possible rich interactive online experiences for over 500 million Web users, worldwide.

Eolas is currently suing Microsoft for $521 million (whoa!) over this patent, claiming that ActiveX is a violation of the patent. Microsoft has tried a “prior art” defence, claiming that the functionality of the Viola browser was an example of the same idea. The court ruled the Viola “not teach nor fairly suggest that instant ‘906 invention, as claimed.” This may or may not be a fair assessment, but it is beside my point.

The main problem with the patent should be appearant by just reading Eolas’ page about it: If their “technology” “enabling Web browsers … to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications”, how can it be that no web browser obtained a license from Eolas? The plot thickens: It seems that they ALL invented it separately, without using the patent. Eolas on the other hand, sat on their patent seemingly without using it for anything at all.

IANAL, but an idea has to be non-obvious in order to be patentable under US patent law. As far as I can tell, there is a pretty simple test of non-obviousness: If several inventors use the same idea independently of the patent, it must have been pretty darn obvious. According to Eolas’ own testimony, ActiveX (which is a development of OLE, by the way) and applets are both covered by the patent, the same would hold for Flash, or course.

Now, I wasn’t very involved in these things in 1993, but, come on Eolas, that is a pretty bloody obvious idea! What’s next? A patent for comb-overs?

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty illustrative of the silliness surrounding patents. I have seen a lot of bad software patents, and nary a good one. They proof of the patent system, as they say, is in the eatin’. Oh yeah, and isn’t it cute how Eolas is trying to make it seem like they invented this great thing for the world, and then nobody went on to use their idea about it, just reinvent it! Losers.

Copyright © 2005 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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