Tim Berners-Lee defends the open web from patent threat

By Lee Kaelin on

The inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee testified in Federal Court on Tuesday giving evidence as part of the defense of a rather remarkable patent trial that’s getting under way in Tyler, Tx, where Michael Doyle is suing some of the world’s biggest internet companies by claiming ownership of the "interactive web," and infringement of two patents his company Eloas Technology own.

Doyle, a biologist from Chicago claims he and two others invented the interactive web in 1993 whilst working for the University of California, and subsequently patented the technology.

His allegations center on a program he created so doctors could view embryos online, which Doyle claims was the first ever program that allowed users to interact with images inside a browser window.

Berners-Lee flew down from Boston, near where he teaches at MIT, to speak to a jury of two men and six women about the early days of the web: "I am here because I want to help get some clarity over what was obvious and what was the feeling of computing [in the early 1990s]…. The tools I had in my knapsack, so to speak," he stated when questioned in court.

When asked if he applied for a patent upon inventing the web, he said no, explaining that "the internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have." An in-depth report of the questioning has been published by Wired.

The internet pioneer gave his testimony on behalf of the defendants which include Adobe, Amazon, Google, and Yahoo among others being sued by Doyle’s company Eolas Technology for $600 million. He joined other web pioneers including Netscape co-founder Eric Bina, the inventor of the Viola browser, Pei-Yuan Wei, and Dave Raggett, who responsible for the invention of the html embed tag.

Eolas Technology, which Doyle founded, has had success in court in the past. They were denounced as "patent trolls" after suing Microsoft in 1999 claiming their web browser Internet Explorer infringed patents they owned for "adding features to web browsers." After four years of court battles they succeeded, and were awarded $521 million in 2003. Microsoft appealed and it was overturned, but the Redmond-based software giant decided to settle out of court and end the dispute for an undisclosed sum of money.

The stakes are high in this case. If the accused firms are found guilty, Doyle’s firm Eolas and the University of California could rightfully demand payouts from nearly every modern website online. It will fundamentally change the internet and e-commerce as we know it today with Eolas earning millions from pretty much everyone with a website containing interactive content.

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