Microsoft wins latest round in Eolas patent battle

Appeals court sends the decision back to District Court be reheard

Steve Malone
3 Mar 2005

Microsoft has won the latest round in its long running battle with Eolas Technologies over the ownership of the patents regarding plug-ins for browsers.

A Federal appeals court in the US, has sent the case back to the District Court in Chicago to be reheard. Under the new proceedings Microsoft will get a second chance to prove 'prior art' - i.e. that the technology was in the public domain prior to the issue of the patent.

The disputed patent 5,838,906 describes technologies that allow a browser to call programs over the Internet such as Microsoft's own ActiveX, often used to display a wide range of multimedia content such as streaming audio and video in a web page.

In August 2003 a jury found that Microsoft had indeed infringed the Eolas patent and the judge ordered Microsoft to pay $520 million in damages. More worryingly for the future of Internet Explorer and the Web's ecosystem was that IE would not be able to use 'plug in' technology which forms the basis of many pages from Macromedia Flash to Adobe Acrobat.

The situation was considered so bad that the web's founder Tim Berners-Lee intervened and asked the US Patent Office to re-examine the validity of the Eolas claim. Claiming that 'substantial economic and technical damage' would be caused the Web if the ruling was allowed to stand but also predicted chaos saying that the `906 patent will cause cascades of incompatibility to ripple through the Web.'.

Microsoft is understandably pleased with the result and feels that it is in with a good position to win a final victory in the case. In a statement it said, 'Today's ruling is a clear affirmation of our position. Today's reversal gives Microsoft the opportunity to tell the jury the whole story of how this technology was developed and to present evidence that shows that Eolas did not invent this technology, and that it was developed by others, particularly Pei-yuan Wei and his colleagues at O'Reilly and Associates. The ruling also gives Microsoft the opportunity to present evidence that Eolas knowingly withheld information about Pei-Wei's invention to the Patent Office.

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