February 10, 2012
Patent Case To Determine Who Owns ‘Interactive Web’
World wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee testified in Federal Court on Tuesday in a patent case brought by Eolas Technologies, which claims to have rights to the “interactive web,” according to various media reports.
The outcome of the case will determine whether the rich, interactive web we know today is owned by the world, or whether the core technology upon which it operates is actually owned by a little-known company that would be able to extract royalties from a large number of Internet companies.
The case rests on one central question: “Who was first?”
Michael Doyle, owner of Eolas, claims that he and two others invented and patented the first program that allowed for images in a web browser while they were employed at the University of California-San Francisco in 1993.
The Chicago biologist is now suing some of the world´s largest Internet companies and retailers, including Google, Amazon and Yahoo, claiming ownership of the interactive web and accusing these companies and others of infringing upon two of Eolas´ patents.
Eight jurors will now determine whether the first computer program that allowed access to an “interactive web” was created by Doyle, or other web pioneers such as Pei-Yuan Wei or Dave Raggett.
Berners-Lee created the first website in 1991, and designed and built the first web browser, known as simply WorldWideWeb (later renamed Nexus).
He initially came up with the idea to combine hypertext with the Internet while working at CERN in Europe, and conducted his work on a NeXT computer designed by Steve Jobs.
During the trial, Berners-Lee said patents like the ones Eolas holds could be a serious threat to the Web.
“I had concerns about the software patent system in the U.S., and this particular patent is key in raising those concerns,” Wired magazine quoted him as saying on cross-examination by Eolas lead attorney, Mike McKool.
McKool was trying to make the case that Berners-Lee wants a “complete abolition of software patents.”
Lawyers on both sides of the case have spent a fortune creating extravagant presentations, trying for the last three days to convince the jury that their side is right.
Doyle and his two co-inventors have testified this week, saying that they had conceived of their idea — which they called the “Visible Embryo Project” -- in September 1993, and had began demonstrating it two months later. The system, they said, allowed doctors to view embryos from the Carnegie Collection.
The trio signed an invention disclosure form in 1994 with the University, and began the process of patenting their invention, which they ultimately accomplished in 1998.
“We call it the interactive web,” Doyle said on the stand.
“These models could be used to model healthy babies, and plan inter-uterine surgery.”
“Are you aware of anyone who had accomplished that earlier?” asked Mike McKool, Doyle´s lead lawyer.
“No,” Doyle replied.
Doyle´s two co-inventors, David Martin and Cheong Ang, supported Doyle´s remarks in later testimony.
Ang, the lead programmer on the project, said he “worked really long hours, sometimes all the way through the night.”
All three inventors own stock in Eolas, and stand to benefit financially from the company´s patent-licensing program if the trial goes their way. Doyle owns 40 percent of Eolas, while Martin testified that he owns about 8 percent. Ang did not disclose the percentage of Eolas that he owns.
The University of California, which reportedly owns 25 percent of the company, also stands to gain.
Testifying for the defense, Pei-Yuan Wei said that he had conceived of making interactive features as early as 1991, and had demonstrated them to Sun Microsystems by May 1993 -- months before Doyle´s team said it conceived of its invention.
Wei and Scott Silvey –students in computer science at University of California, Berkeley, in the ´90s – testified that they combined Wei´s Viola web browser with a program called V-Plot that allowed users to rotate an image of an airplane.
Netscape co-founder Eric Bina testified that he had attended the demonstration at Sun Microsystems, and that it had “inspired” him. But Eolas lawyers tried to discredit that testimony because the code could no longer be found.
Defense lawyers responded by submitting nearly identical code, dating from May 12, 1993 -- less than a week after Doyle´s team filed its patent. They also wanted to show the jury a video of V-Plot and Viola at work.
But Judge Leonard Davis ruled that the five-day-late code – which defense lawyers searched through nearly 100 gigabytes of backup tapes to locate– wasn´t good enough, and the jury never saw the V-Plot video.
Bina also testified that Eolas´ invention was a spinoff of his own Mosaic web browser, and that when he was asked to review the code made by the UCSF team, he found that Doyle and his team had only added 334 lines of code added to about 18,000 lines total.
“Was [the code] new or novel?” asked defense counsel Jennifer Doan.
“No,” Bina said.
Bina said had not informed the Patent Office about the matter.
Doyle and his co-inventors had previously acknowledged they were working from existing browsers.
“We were excited to use Mosaic and Viola as building blocks,” said Doyle.
Ang testified that the code he added to Mosaic to create the Visible Embryo Project was deserving of a patent, despite its short lines of code.
Defense lawyers also put British web scientist Dave Raggett, who works for the standards body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), on the stand. Raggett created the < embed > tag currently used to include code in a webpage from an outside source, although it was ultimately not accepted into the initial draft of HTML standards.
Raggett´s early demonstrations were used to help refute the Eolas patent.
Both sides are spending millions of dollars on the case, which will be decided eight average citizens of Tyler, Texas, who must answer the question “Who was first?”
If Doyle succeeds, some of the world´s largest Internet companies could end up owing Eolas, which reportedly has a two-room office in Tyler, Texas, and only one employee, billions of dollars.
The current case is not the first time Eolas has sued major Internet firms for patent infringement. In 2003, the company won a $521 million victory against Microsoft, although that verdict was later overturned. Microsoft ultimately settled with Eolas for an undisclosed sum rumored to be over $100 million.
On the Net:
- Sir Tim Berners-Lee
- Eolas Technologies
- University of California-San Francisco
- Sun Microsystems
- University of California, Berkeley
- United States Patent and Trademark Office
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)