The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, testified in a courtroom Tuesday for the first time in his life. The web pioneer flew down from Boston, near where he teaches at MIT, to an eastern Texas federal court to speak to a jury of two men and six women about the early days of the web.
His trip is part of an effort by a group of internet companies and retailers trying to defeat two patentspatents that a patent-licensing company called Eolas and the University of California are saying entitle them to royalty payments from just about anyone running a website with interactive" features, like rotating pictures or streaming video.
The defendants, including Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, are hoping that Berners-Lee's testimonycombined with that of other web pioneers like Netscape co-founder Eric Bina, Viola browser inventor Pei-Yuan Wei, and Dave Raggett (who invented the HTML embed" tag)will convince the jury that the inventions of Eolas and its founder, Michael Doyle, aren't worth much. The stakes couldn't be higherif Berners-Lee and the defendants don't succeed, Eolas and Doyle could insist on a payout from almost every modern website.
Berners-Lee, a slight 56-year-old man, spoke quickly and quietly; at one point, Judge Leonard Davis asked him to speak up. We have a language situation with your accent that makes it doubly difficult," he told the scientist. Berners-Lee shifted position and looked about the room as he spoke, and seemed uncomfortable at times.
Jennifer Doan, a Texarkana lawyer representing Yahoo and Amazon, led the questioning.
Mr. Berners-Lee, why are you here?" asked Doan.
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 said.
After describing how Berners-Lee worked at CERN in Switzerland back in the 1980s, Doan moved on to the web. When Berners-Lee invented the web, did he apply for a patent on it, Doan asked.
No," said Berners-Lee.
Why not?" asked Doan.
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."
Doan: And who owns the web?"
Berners-Lee: We do."
Doan: The web we all own, is it 'interactive'?"
It is pretty interactive, yeah," said Berners-Lee, smiling.
Then Doan moved on to the heart of Berners-Lee's testimony: to establish the importance of the Viola browser, created by Pei Wei, who was at that time a computer science student at UC Berkeley. The Viola browser is a key piece of prior art" that the defendant companies hope will invalidate the UC/Eolas patent.
Berners-Lee described Viola as an important part of the development of the web."
The jury was shown an e-mail from Pei Wei to Berners-Lee dated December 1991almost two years before Doyle's inventionwhich read in part: One thing I'd like to do soon, if I have time, is to teach the parser about Viola object descriptions and basically embed Viola objects (GUIs and programmability) into HTML files."
Later Tuesday, Wei would testify that he had demonstrated interactive elements working in the Viola browser to Sun Microsystems in May 1993several months before Doyle claims to have come up with his invention.
Finally, Doan turned to Berners-Lee's book, in which he described Wei as a very inventive student at UC Berkeley." Berners-Lee described how the web community at that time wasn't focused on patents or even moneyWei simply put his invention online for free.
His own act, creating the World Wide Web, was more a matter of personalities and persuasion than it was a matter of hammering out code, he explained.
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