Supreme Court Sends Microsoft Browser Case Packing

Updated: The top court's ruling may hold a silver lining for Microsoft, despite the company losing a major legal battle over browser patents on Monday.

A U.S. patent office decision against Microsoft in September actually softens the sting of a legal setback the software giant experienced Monday, some Microsoft watchers now contend.

As previously reported, the nations top court on Monday said it will not hear Microsofts latest appeal of a 2003 Illinois jury decision adverse to Microsoft, and concerning the browsers use of a technology for downloading software programs. The University of California patented the coding, and Chicago-based Eolas Technologies Inc. has licensed exclusive use of it since 1998.

The legal wrangling is said to be among the most important the Internet has faced in a decade because at its heart lies technology thats around since 1998 that allows Web browsers to use applications they encounter during their Web wanderings.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Eolas/Microsoft case.

Microsoft said as recently as June that an adverse court ruling ultimately forces changes upon Internet Explorer, the worlds most popular Internet browser and leader of the browser market.

The prospect of changes to IE has developers nervous because it means having to redo their Web pages or computer programs. But there may wind up being little to fear.

From a legal standpoint, the case appears to be dead set against Microsoft. Yet thats not really the matter. The lawsuit, though weakened by Mondays decision, may have found some new strength recently.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office handed Microsoft a legal opening last month to use in its long, and mostly losing, patent spat with the University of California and Eolas Technologies, say several analysts watching the three-year-old legal battle from the sidelines.

Although the office rejected a Microsoft-led attempt to invalidate the Eolas patent claim in September, in so doing the office "kind of rewrote the patent" to more narrowly define what exactly the Eolas patent covers, said Jason Schultz, an intellectual property specialist at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A growing number of case watchers believe the patent, as upheld by the patent office, is now less broadly defined and wont impact as many Web applications.

Thats helped blunt what had been dire predictions about the 3-year-old legal spats draconian effect on the Internet, say several legal experts watching battle from the sideline.

Even with an Microsoft loss, and changes to IE going into effect, history is on the Internets side, said Schultz.

"The Internet tends to route around legal problems using other technology, just like it routes around bad network connections," he said.

The patent decision also somewhat strengthens Microsofts remaining legal outlook for the case. Microsoft hasnt yet had a chance to take advantage of this legal opening the patent office created. "It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft can capitalize," said Dennis Crouch, a patent attorney and author of the popular Patently-O Internet site. "I think what happened recently at patent office actually weakens Eolas."

A Microsoft spokesman didnt have an immediate comment on the decision.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more from the Doyle interview

Trey Davis, a university spokesman, said Mondays decision erases any doubts that the Universitys hold on the patent is valid. The patent matter is of particular importance to Eolas because the company holds exclusive rights to use the universitys technology until 2015.

"Microsoft lost before a jury, lost before a judge. They lost a reconsideration of an appeal," he said.

"I presume that should provide sufficient pattern to indicate the patent is valid, that infringement occurred and that compensation is due the university and Eolas."

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