Raggett: Eolas Patent ‘A Well Known Idea’

A decade after Dave Raggett began drafting the HTML+ specification, his work has become critical to an effort by the Web's founder and standardbearers to "prevent substantial economic and technical damage" to the Internet.

Documents written by the British pioneer are being cited by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in urging US officials to invalidate a controversial patent which could cover key Web functionality, including the Internet Explorer web browser and several tags in the HTML standard.

The patent in question is held by the University of California and licensed to Eolas Technologies, which in August won a $521 million court judgment against Microsoft after a jury found that the Internet Explorer browser infringed the UC/Eolas patent.

The patent covers systems allowing browsers to "access and execute an embedded program object," and is based on work by a Cal team led by Michael Doyle. This "plugin" concept, now widely used to display multimedia within a browser window, was also widely discussed at the time on the www-talk mailing list hosted by Web creator Tim Berners-Lee.

"The idea was a well known one at the time, and stems from work on compound documents and object oriented graphical user interfaces," said Raggett, who addressed the issue in the HTML+ specs he authored in 1993-94 for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

"At the time browsers would launch external helper apps (such as xv for viewing various image formats) when the browser downloaded a file format it couldn't render itself," Raggett said in an email. "My proposal was a way to extend browsers to allow them to render such formats within the view of an html document rather than in a separate window.

"In my emails and in the HTML+ spec, I described the idea of using dynamically loaded libraries for extending browsers to add support for new data formats without the need to modify the browser's own code," Raggett wrote. "A common API would be needed for the control path between the browser and the extension. This was later realized by Marc Andreessen when he moved from the NCSA Mosaic project to Netscape, in the form of the Netscape plugin API."

Nonetheless, the University of California's 1994 patent application for the technology was approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office in 1998. Microsoft will appeal the Eolas court ruling, and is designing a technical workaround that will allow IE to continue to use popular multimedia plugins from Apple, Macromedia, Real Networks and Adobe.

"This ruling affects more than just Microsoft; it affects a broad array of partners and customers - including companies that many would view as competitors," said Michael Wallent, general manager of the Windows Client Platform at Microsoft.

If the patent is upheld, it could also affect HTML tags (including APPLET, OBJECT and EMBED) and force developers to modify any web sites that used them.

"The impact of this patent will be felt not only by those who are alleged to directly infringe, but all whose web pages and application rely on the stable, standards-based operation of browsers threatened by this patent," said Berners-Lee. "In many cases, those who will be forced to incur the cost of modifying Web pages or software applications do not even themselves infringe the patent - assuming it is even valid."

On Oct. 23 the W3C asked US patent offiicals to set aside Eolas' patent. In its filing, the W3C cited Raggett's work as existing prior art that invalidates Eolas' claims. The W3C filing was dismissed by laywers for Eolas, who said the court has considered and rejected the HTML+ spec as prior art.

Raggett, will now wait along with the rest of the Web community as the patent office weighs whether to reexamine the Eolas case, a process that typically takes about 90 days. The W3C sees a review as essential.

"The patent will cause cascades of incompatibility to ripple through the Web," the group said. "Yet, it's not too late to remedy this problem."