W3C Investigation Begins on HTML Standard

UPDATE: Fallout from patent ruling may snarl the Web's HTML standard. Eolas and Microsoft trade jibes, while the W3C standards body begins investigation.

The ramifications of the recent Web browser patent verdict against Microsoft Corp. could strike at the heart of the Webs common language—HTML.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is investigating whether the claims in the patent infringement lawsuit brought by Eolas Technologies Inc. and the University of California could require changes to both the current and future HyperText Markup Language specifications, W3C officials said on Tuesday.

Eolas in its lawsuit has claimed that Microsoft infringed on its patent of technology which allows for the embedded applications within Web pages such as applets and plug-ins. Microsoft has disputed the claims and has promised to appeal a $521 million jury verdict handed down in August. Eolas attorney also has said that the patent could apply to a broad range of Web technology


Microsoft Browser Suit: Victor Girds for New Battles.

The W3C is forming a patent advisory group that will decide whether to recommend changes to HTML and could also call on the full standards body to conduct a formal legal analysis of the patent.

"This is a serious issue," said Philipp Hoschka, W3C deputy director for Europe who also oversees HTML activities. "As you know, we have tried for our specifications to be royalty free."

Hoschka wouldnt specify what portions of HTML the patent might affect. Determining whether any tags or HTML specifications fall within the patents claims would be the HTML patent advisory groups role, he said.

Eolas Founder Michael Doyle said in an interview with eWeek.com on Wednesday that the W3Cs move to examine HTML because of the patent is misdirected and that the standards body and Web community should be pressuring Microsoft instead to settle the case.

"There isnt a need for that activity to be happening," he said. "What they ought to be doing is saying to Microsoft, Why arent you talking to (Eolas) about taking this license?

Doyle said Microsoft could settle the case "with a fully paid up license and diffuse the issue for everybody" and that the companys push to make changes to Internet Explorer to overcome the patent is causing much of the turmoil.

Microsoft is prepping potential changes to Internet Explorer as a result of the patent verdict and has been discussing them with W3C members, including at a meeting held about a month ago in San Francisco.


Click here to find out more of what changes Microsoft is considering for its IE browser.

But Microsoft officials made it clear on Wednesday that the company has no intention of licensing Eolas technology and that any changes made to Internet Explorer would be minor and have little impact on the industry and end users. Though it hasnt set a date, Microsoft expects any Internet Explorer workarounds to be known within the next month or so, spokesman Jim Desler said.

"We often license technology when it makes sense and when it brings value to our products," Desler said. "In this particular case, we believe that the patent is invalid, that there was no infringement and we like our prospects on appeal. And were certainly not going to pay for this technology at the rate theyre seeking."

W3C patent advisory groups typically are formed to avoid royalties as the standards body develops technical specifications and usually involve the W3C member making patent claims, W3C spokeswoman Janet Daly said. In this case, the group will be working without the participation of the patent holder.

The W3C received no response to its attempts to reach Michael Doyle, the founder of Eolas, about the patent, Daly said.

However, Doyle said he has only received a confrontational e-mail message from W3C officials following the jury verdict and has not been, nor expects to be, invited to participate in discussions of the advisory group since he is not a W3C member.

Since the advisory group is still being formed, no individuals outside the standards body have been invited since such invitations must come from the group directly, Daly said. Membership first is open to the 15 member organizations on the HTML Working Group and could include others if invited.

Beyond suggesting changes to HTML, the advisory group also could become involved in the ongoing debate concerning "prior art"—a legal term in patent law referring to whether an invention existed prior to the filing of a patent. Hoschka declined to say whether any investigation into the existence of prior art could also lead to the W3C becoming more directly involved in the patent lawsuit.

The W3C has sought legal opinions concerning prior art before. In 1999, it concluded after a yearlong examination that the then-proposed Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard for Web privacy did not infringe on an existing patent.

Earlier this month, Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie had claimed in a posting on his Weblog that Lotus Notes used similar methods as the patents technology prior to the patents filing data and called on developers to "dust off our code" to uncover examples of prior art.

Microsoft had made prior art arguments during the trial and is expected to use that argument in an appeal.

The W3C plans to provide regular public updates about the groups progress. Its charter for the HTML patent advisory group allows it to meet for as long as 90 days, at which time it can ask for an extension but must report on its progress.

Discuss this in the eWEEK forum. Editors Note: This story has been updated to include responses from Eolas and Microsoft.