NYT Patents column on W3C, CSS, Intermind, Microsoft, and Eolas

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Thu, 25 Feb 1999 03:03:11 -0800

I'm horrified this didn't cross my desk sooner... an important
article, a rare mention of W3C in the Paper of Record (and
unfortunately implicitly equating the Web Standards Project with it)

MS sounds a little self-serving on the cross-licensing terms: I don't
think I know of any Sun or IBM license that demands that!

More thoughts later...


February 22, 1999


Microsoft Move Sparks Controversy Over Web Standards


Many Web site developers were angered earlier this
month when they learned that the Microsoft Corp. had
received a patent covering a fundamental technology
adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium, a nonprofit
group working to standardize the Web.

Part of the furor arose because Microsoft, a member of
the consortium, had not told members that it had applied
for a patent covering aspects of a technology known as
"cascading style sheets."

These style sheets are essentially templates that reduce
the cost of developing Web sites, make it easier to
redesign a site on the fly and cut the cost of
maintaining a site.

Microsoft since has said that its failure to disclose
the patent application was inadvertent and, more
important, that it will freely license the patent. But
technologists say that the Microsoft patent is a
worrisome symptom of a much larger problem.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has begun to issue
a spate of patents that were applied for several years
ago when the Internet was just becoming viable
commercially. Some fear that these patents threaten the
very architecture underlying the online world.

While patents are intended to reward innovative work
done independently by individuals or companies, the
World Wide Web is in many respects the result of
innovation that is by definition collaborative.

"The Web works because everyone has some basic
underlying agreements about basic technical standards,
not because everybody went out and tried to make their
own web," said Daniel K. Weitzner, director of
technology standards for the World Wide Web Consortium.
"If everyone did go out and make their own web, we would
have no Web."

Paul Resnick, associate professor at the University of
Michigan's School of Information, said the friction
between patents and standards was spurring a "revolution
in how we think about property."

"Both innovation and standardization create value for
consumers," he said. "Patents are good for rewarding
innovation. But they can inhibit standardization. And
the value that is created by standards accrues to
everyone. "

Microsoft's patent, No. 5,860,073, covers part of the
technology behind "cascading style sheets," templates
into which fresh data can be poured repeatedly. The
style sheets are used with HTML, the common language of
the Internet. The patent also covers a similar template
approach for XML, a next-generation language described
as "HTML on steroids."

George Olsen is a design director at 2-Lane Media in Los
Angeles who heads up the Web Standards Project, a
lobbying group for developers who want to see Web
standards broadly adopted, so that virtually all sites
can be viewed easily with any type of browser.

When Olsen's group first heard of the Microsoft patent,
they hotly threatened to press the Patent Office to
re-examine it. But the group's tempers have cooled since
Microsoft announced that it would freely and widely
license the patent.

"Now we're in a trust-but-verify mode," Olsen said.

While the Microsoft patent has been the subject of ire
outside the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as the
W3C, a different patent seems to be the main focus of
concern within the consortium.

The Intermind Corp., a consortium member, did disclose
to the consortium that it had applied for a patent
covering aspects of "metadata," which is essentially
information tagged to data so that it can be sorted or
classified. (An "R" rating tagged to a movie, for
example would be metadata about a movie.) The consortium
adopted a metadata standard known as the Platform for
Privacy Preferences, or P3P. But members were taken by
surprise when Intermind announced, after it had been
issued patent No. 5,862,325 -- a huge, 130-page document
-- that it would exact licensing fees from fellow
members, who had helped developed P3P.

Thomas Reardon, a Microsoft program manager who is the
company's representative with the consortium, said his
company was serving as a model of how consortium members
should treat their patents.

"There is currently absolutely zero patent policy at the
W3C," said Reardon. Instead, each of the consortium's
300 members post their own policy regarding licensing.
Microsoft's is far more liberal than that of any other
company, he said, comparing it to "much stricter terms"
offered by Sun Microsystems or IBM.

"I actually think what we're doing is pretty striking,"
Reardon said. "We're saying, 'It doesn't really matter
what the patent says, you can have it."'

Of course, Microsoft is not giving away its patent for
nothing. In return, companies must grant Microsoft a
reciprocal license for any related technology. "We're
not going to give something for free and then be held
hostage by somebody we just gave to," Reardon said.

But even if other companies follow Microsoft's example,
other thorny issues will probably emerge.

Eolas Technologies, a company in Wheaton, Ill., that is
not a member of the consortium, recently sued Microsoft
for infringing its patent, No. 5,838,906. Mike Doyle,
the founder of Eolas, contends that the patent covers
aspects of "embedded technology" -- the so-called
applets and plug-ins that make it possible to experience
music, video and animated graphics on the Web. These are
used not just by Microsoft but by other software makers
as well.

Should Eolas and others not in the consortium be able to
reap the benefits of standardization while at the same
time exacting licensing fees for patented technologies?

Resnick contends that such questions are going to
require a radical rethinking of intellectual property.

"It's a big issue; it's fundamental," he said. "There's
not going to be an easy answer."

Patents are available by number for $3 from the Patent
and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C. 20231.

Related Sites
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the
Web, and The Times has no control over their content or

* Microsoft Corp.

* World Wide Web Consortium

* World Wide Web Consortium: Cascading Style Sheets

* U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

* Microsoft: Style Sheets: A Brief Overview for

* Patent No. 5,860,073: Cascading Style Sheets

* Web Standards Project

* W3C: Platform for Privacy Preferences

* Patent No. 5,862,325: Metadata

* Eolas Technologies

* Patent No. 5,838,906: Embedded Technology


,838,906&RS=PN/5,838,906">Patent No. 5,838,906: Embedded Technology