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Jonathan Erickson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Executable Content, Software Patents, and Here's Your Subpoena

October 07, 2009

Every now and then, I have to go back and re-read Dr. Dobb's articles published years ago. Such was recently the case when I saw the news that Eolas Technologies  has launched a bevy of  patent-infringement lawsuits -- 23 in all -- against  companies like Adobe, Amazon, Apple, eBay, Sun, Yahoo!, Google, and J.C. Penney, to name a few. At the root of the dispute are two patents that Eolas owns, and which the company has successfully defended in court -- U.S. Patent No. 5,838,906 ('906 Patent) and U.S. Patent No. 7,599,985 ('985 Patent).

The '906 Patent is basaed on Eolas technology (first demonstrated publicly in 1993) which enables Web browsers to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications. The Patent Office granted the '906 Patent in November 1998. The '906 Patent was the subject of prior litigation against Microsoft   that resulted in a 2004 federal judgment of more than $565 million in favor of Eolas. According to Eolas, the USPTO has affirmed the validity of the '906 Patent in three separate proceedings, including two patent reexaminations, most recently in February 2009.

The '985 Patent (a continuation of the '906 patent) allows websites to add fully-interactive embedded applications to their online offerings through the use of plug-in and AJAX web development techniques. The Patent Office issued the '985 Patent in October 2009.

What this is all about is "executable content," or "embedded applications" as it is also called. The Microsoft settlement dealt with how its ActiveX controls worked. The more recent lawsuit involves the patent for a "distributed hypermedia method and system for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document."

Say what you will, Eolas has been consistent in describing its technology, as illustrated in this letter to Dr. Dobb's  from Eolas founder Michael Doyle in January, 1996:

We designed and implemented an API for embedded "inline" applets and demonstrated it to several groups, including many of those who were later involved in projects to add APIs and applets to Web browsers at places like NCSA, Netscape, and Sun.

This led to a series of discussions between Michael and me, which culminated in his writing an in-depth article  Proposing a Standard Web API. According to Michael at the time, his goal was to short circuit the Web API wars:

Our general philosophy ... was to allow enhancement of the browser's functionality through object-oriented, modular application components that conform to a standard API, rather than turning the browser into a monolithic application with an ever-increasing code base. This encourages Web developers to take a document-centric approach to application development. The Web page itself becomes the mechanism for doing work, through collections of small, efficient Weblet building blocks, rather than the menagerie of top-heavy applications found on the common desktop PC.

If I recall correctly, what Eolas envisioned a decade or more ago was a Web supported by open standards, rather than one dominated by proprietary monolithic applications. Ironically, that's the same argument we're grappling with today as HTML 5 moves to the forefront; see Rob Cherny's article HTML 5 Starts Looking Real and Todd Anglin's Ajax, RIAs, and the Future of Web Development.

Putting aside my distaste for software patents in general, my grapple is with whether Eolas is correct in what its doing or how the company is going about it. It's been a long time since I've talked with Michael Doyle, but it does seem that he's stuck by his original mission of promoting an open standards Web -- and I'm sure I'll get letters on that. (And in all likelihood, the first letter will be from fellow Dr. Dobb's blogger Mark Nelson who had this to say about the topic.)

In any event, I look forward to hearing what you have to say. And who knows, maybe I'll get another letter to the editor from Michael Doyle. It's about time for another chat.

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