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A leading Internet standards body said Wednesday that it has taken the unusual step of asking federal officials to revoke a patent that the organization claims threatens "substantial economic and technical damage" to the Web.
The position of the World Wide Web Consortium places the organization squarely behind Microsoft, which lost a court battle in August against the patent holder, a former University of California researcher.
In a letter to James E. Rogan, undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, W3C director Tim Berners-Lee said, the group "urges the USPTO to initiate a reexamination of the '906 patent in order to prevent substantial economic and technical damage to the operation of [the] World Wide Web."
If the patent is not revoked, the impact would be felt not just by Microsoft, but by everyone who has created Web pages and applications written for standards-based browsers that use technology covered by the patent. "In many cases, those who will be forced to incur the cost of modifying Web pages or software applications do not even themselves infringe the patent-- assuming it is even valid," Berners-Lee wrote.
It's the first time the W3C has asked that a patent be revoked.
U.S. Patent No. 5,838,906 covers technology that enables a browser to call programs over the Internet to display streaming audio and video, advanced graphics, and other content within a single Web page. The technology has become a standard within HTML, the language used to write Web pages. The W3C controls the development of HTML.
Michael Doyle, founder of Eolas Technologies in Chicago, was granted the patent while he was an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco. A federal court jury sided with Eolas in its patent-infringement suit against Microsoft, awarding $521 million to the plaintiff.
As a result, Microsoft has said it will make changes in its Internet Explorer browser, which is used to access the Web by 90% of computer users. Altering the browser could force changes in a variety of popular media software that leverage the application, including Adobe Systems' Acrobat document reader, Apple Computer's QuickTime video program, Macromedia's Flash, and the RealNetworks music player.
In its letter to the patent office, the W3C maintained that the Eolas patent is invalid because its ideas had previously been published as "prior art." Prior art wasn't considered in the Microsoft trial, nor when the patent was granted, the standards body said. Therefore, the patent should be invalidated.
If the patent is allowed to stand, the W3C said, it would cause "cascades of incompatibility to ripple through the Web."