Microsoft wins another Eolas web patent battle

But the fat lady isn't even humming

The US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has ruled, once again, that The University of Califonia's controversial '906' browser patent is invalid. The decision gives Microsoft the upper hand in its battle with university spin-off Eolas, the sole licensee of the patent.

A source "familiar with the documents" said the PTO ruling rejects all ten patent claims it reviewed, CNET reports. The two companies have been locked in a legal battle over the patent for over a year.

The patent covers a method for opening third party applications - Flash or PDF's, for example - within a browser.

Eolas claimed that Microsoft had infringed the patent with its Internet Explorer browser, and took the company to court. A jury decided that IE did infringe the patent, and ordered Microsoft to pay Eolas license fees to the tune of $521m. This was later raised to $565m.

Microsoft appealed the verdict, citing the Viola browser as prior art. It argued that this meant the Eolas patent was awarded improperly, and is therefore invalid. The court case continues, but the latest PTO ruling lends considerable weight to Microsoft's position.

Microsoft hailed the PTO decision. A spokesman said: "Today's action is another step in the Patent Office's reconsideration of the Eolas patent. We've maintained all along that when scrutinized closely, the Eolas patent would be ruled invalid."

But this is not the closing chapter. The University of California and Eolas may still argue their case one more time before patent examiners. If that doesn't work, they can take their case to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. After that, the last available option is to take the case to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

If the patent is eventually upheld, the implications for the Web are enormous. Microsoft and other browser writers are much more likely to rewrite code to avoid the patented idea than to continue shipping products which incur substantial license fees. This would almost certainly mean hundreds of thousands of Web pages would have be rewritten to work with the new browsers, causing widespread disruption on the Net.

One of the more interesting side effects of this case is that it has made for some unlikely alliances. Who would have thought that Microsoft would be fighting alongside Web luminaries like Sir Tim "www" Berners-Lee? He wrote to the US PTO earlier this year, asking it to review the patent. ®

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