The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has sided with Microsoft in a patent infringement lawsuit involving technology that allows interactive material to be embedded on a Web site. The W3C has urged the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to invalidate the patent "in order to prevent substantial economic and technical damage to the operation of (the) World Wide Web."

In a long letter sent Tuesday by W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee to James Rogan, US Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, Berners-Lee claims that "prior art" -- a legal term referring to technology in existence at the time a patent is applied for -- proves US Patent number 5,838,906 (the '906 patent) is invalid and that the USPTO should therefore re-examine the case for issuing the patent in the first place.

Last August, a jury in Chicago ordered Microsoft to pay US$520.6 million in damages to Eolas Technologies and the University of California, the holders of the '906 patent. Though Microsoft is appealing against the ruling, it is also making changes to IE that may affect a "large number of existing Web pages," the W3C said in a statement that accompanied a copy of Berners-Lee's letter.

"Removing the improperly disruptive effect of this invalid patent is important not only for the future of the Web, but also for the past," Berners-Lee said in the letter. "The '906 patent is a substantial setback for global interoperability and the success of the open Web," he added later in the letter.

Berners-Lee, is generally credited as leading an effort, with Robert Cailliau, to write the Web's underlying protocols -- including HTTP and HTML -- at the CERN nuclear research centre in Switzerland in the late 1980s. He also founded the W3C in 1994, of which Microsoft and a number of its competitors, such as Oracle, Sun and RealNetworks are members.

The technology covered in the '906 patent was developed by Eolas president Michael Doyle at the University of California. The patent describes in part "a system allowing a user of a browser program... to access and execute an embedded program object" or small computer programs, often referred to as "applets" or "plug-ins."

Berners-Lee and the W3C have presented the USPTO with two prior art publications, "Raggett I" and "Raggett II," which the consortium said relate to HTML+, a proposed specification extending the features of HTML. "While we understand that the submitted prior art was introduced during the course of the recent trial proceedings, the issue of whether it renders the '906 patent invalid was never considered," the W3C said in a separate section 301, prior art filing.

Berners-Lee's letter goes on to say that even apart from the prior art filing, the technology presented in the '906 patent added nothing to existing practices in word processing programs, which display documents instead of Web pages.

"For example, more than a year before the claims of the '906 patent was filed, a word processing program called Write, provided with Microsoft Windows 3.1, enabled users to embed into Write documents graphic images created with the Paint program," Berners-Lee said. "The Write program would then invoke the Paint program to display the illustration within the same window as the rest of the document."