Web's biggest patent troll is finally vanquished

Key patents at the centre of the world wide wibble are now safe from patent troll Eolas in what would have been the largest trademark payouts in history.

The Eolas patents were so threatening to the web that Sir Tim Berners-Lee appeared in court to take on the trolls in February 2012.

The entire case was heard in the East Texas city of Tyler, population 100,000, and was the result of Michael Doyle’s attempt to levy a vast patent tax. The outcome was a major disappointment for Doyle. The jury invalidated his patents and this week an appeals court agreed.

In 1993, Doyle was the director of a computer lab at the University of California-San Francisco. He oversaw the creation of software that allowed doctors to view embryos online, and claimed it was the first “interactive” use of the world wide web. Doyle patented the idea in 1994.

He created a company called “Eolas”, the Gaelic word for knowledge, but he never made a product that worked. Instead the company got rich off the back of settlements. In 1999, he filed a lawsuit claiming that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer violated his patent on “interactive” features on the web.

He collected a $540 million jury verdict after appeals. Microsoft settled for $100 million.

But things did not go well in other ways. Eolas’ original patent was denounced by the web’s global standard-setting body in 2003 and there was a re-examination at the US Patent Office. Eolas’s patent was not touched.

Doyle got a second patent similar to its first in 2009 and started some serious trolling against Apple, Perot Systems, Blockbuster, eBay, Adobe, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon.

In 2012 Doyle wanted more than $600 million, but by the time it got to trial he expected $1 billion.

Doyle and his lawyers made millions of dollars. But by the end of the 2012 jury trial, only Google, Yahoo and JC Penney had not struck deals with Eolas. And they are probably glad they stuck it out.

But to give you a measure of how bad the patents were, Ars Technica worked out that any modern website would have owed him royalties.

Unlike many “patent trolls” who simply settle for settlements just under the cost of litigation, Doyle’s company aimed and got to extract tens of millions of dollars from the accused companies.

Even after he lost, he has kept filing lawsuits against Disney, ESPN, ABC, Facebook, and WalMart.  

What was particularly unpleasant about this trolling scenario was that the University of California was a big player in the game.

Eolas’ lawyers constantly reminded the jury they were asserting University of California patents. A lawyer from UC’s patent-licensing division described support for Eolas at trial by simply saying that the university “stands by its licensees”.

Yet the University should have known better. While its laywers cooperated with the trolls, two UC Berkeley-trained computer scientists were key witnesses in the effort to demolish the Eolas patents.

These included Pei-Yuan Wei, who created the pioneering Viola browser, a key piece of prior art and Scott Silvey, another UC-Berkeley student at that time, testified about a program he made called VPlot, which allowed users to rotate an image of an airplane using Wei’s browser.

VPlot and Viola were demonstrated to Sun Microsystems in May 1993, months before Doyle dreamed up his invention.