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Microsoft sued over alleged ActiveX patent violation

Plaintiff demands Microsoft cease selling Windows 95/98, Internet Explorer

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Microsoft Internet Explorer's use of plug-ins and applets to add functionality was yesterday alleged to have violated the patents of a small, privately owned software developer. The suit, filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, on behalf of Eolas Technologies, claims Microsoft's products infringe a patent protecting technology that makes it possible to embed applets, such as ActiveX controls, into a Web page. The patent is assigned to the University of California -- Eolas says it has exclusive rights to its commercial exploitation. Products named in the suit include not only Internet Explorer but Windows 95 and 98 too. The suit demands unspecified damages from Microsoft and that the software giant cease all manufacture, use and sale of the offending products. Even a preliminary injunction granting a halt in the sale of these products while the trial is conducted would hit Microsoft hard, though given the company's legal experience, it could probably get around such an order. It's notably the Windows NT isn't mentioned, presumably because Microsoft has never described browsing as being integral to that particular OS. According to report from the Reuters news agency, Eolas would not comment on whether it had licensed its technology to other Internet software developers, but you have to wonder why neither Netscape nor Sun, whose browser and Java products would also appear to infringe the company's patents, are not apparently named in the suit. If they didn't license the technology, that makes Eolas' motives seem far more predatory than might otherwise be the case. The patent describes "a system allowing a user of a browser program on a computer connected to an open distributed hypermedia system to access and execute an embedded program object. The program object is embedded into a hypermedia document much like data objects. The user may select the program object from the screen. Once selected the program object executes on the user's (client) computer or may execute on a remote server or additional remote computers in a distributed processing arrangement". Sounds pretty damning, no? The key to the case, from Microsoft's perspective, may be timing. The patent in question, 5,838,906, was only granted on 17 November 1998, long after IE, Navigator, Java, et al began using and supporting tiny-applications embedded in Web pages, though the initial patent application was made on 17 October 1994. Sun began work on Java in 1991, though it was only made public in 1995. Mosaic, the browser on which IE is based, was released in 1993. At the time of writing, Microsoft had yet to respond to the suit. ®

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