Plugin patent set to cripple Web

Zeldman has suggested the (previously) unfathomable – to protect the future of rich web media by supporting Microsoft.

From what I understand, here’s the low-down: Back in 1998, a company called EOLAS (short for Embedded Objects Linked Across Systems) devised a means of embedding plug-ins. Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, was deemed to have ‘stolen’ this browser technology. Microsoft has lost the US$521 million patent case, but counterclaimed on misrepresentation. They lost the counterclaim. The full verdict will be out in a month or two. If Microsoft loses, it will appeal.

A workaround is possible, with Microsoft suggesting that a dialogue box could appear before the plug-in media loads. However, that would disrupt the flow of use. Worse, if EOLAS is not satisfied with any compromises, this decision could spell disaster for many rich web media sites, and as Zeldman notes, would bring us back to a web surfing experience reminiscent of the early 90’s. Microsoft has already warned vendors to be prepared for the worst outcome, and is working on a plug-in free version of IE. Goodbye to Flash games, PDF files and Quicktime movies.

In actual effect, it is not only Microsoft that will suffer should they lose the appeal. According to this CNet article,

…should the jury’s decision be upheld, Eolas’ attorneys promise that browser makers and distributors around the world had better be prepared to pay up.

That may not be a problem for big companies like HP, but what about open source developers of free browser software? What about Mozilla? This is as bad as a previous patent lawsuit, where someone tried to sue for infringement of GIF (or was it JPEG) technology. Imagine a browsing experience without images and sound. Good thing I still have a copy of Lynx in my PC.

In time, more will be revealed, and many questions will doubtless be asked. My list, so far:

  1. If this was patented, why didn’t any vendor check before implementing it in web browser software?
  2. Why didn’t EOLAS take action immediately, once their patent was infringed? Was it only interested when people started making money out of their patent?
    [ Answer: They filed suit in 1999. So … the case took four years to be concluded? That’s an awfully long time by dotcom standards, and too many web apps use the technology already. ]
  3. Will EOLAS give special consideration at least to programs and services provided to the community for free?
  4. EOLAS’ vision, as stated on its website, says ‘To create and develop the inventions that allow information technologies to enhance the quality of life for everyone.’ How will their lawsuit, award of damages and the removal of plug-in functionality in web browsers, achieve this?

On the bright side, web developers may be forced to use alternative techniques such as – you know what I’m going to say already – XHTML, CSS, Javascript and anything else that supports web standards. Although in the immediate future, I do not think the full-bodied experience of rich media can be wholly replaced by these other technologies.


  1. vantan

    Another quote I found meaningful:
    “When you think about this, having to go around the patent highlights the stupidity of the patent system,” he said. “Everyone in the field is very saddened by the whole thing, that we have to go through this exercise. The W3C has worked very hard to make the Web remain patent free and this might be the one thing that screws it all up. It’s really very frustrating.”

  2. Lucian

    There definitely is a place for rich media, proprietory or otherwise. It would definitely be utopian if an open-source alternative is available, but the business model would probably be unable to support itself.
    Remember the time when some company wanted to sue whomever claiming the hyperlink was their idea and was patented?

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