...or; Why you have to click to activate objects

One of the more annoying developments with web browsers the last few years, is the "Click here to activate" feature for plugin content. Something that for the average user may just come across as poor UI design, is actually an example of how stupid software patents can be.

Flash video player with a "click here to activate" tool-tip.

Basically the Eolas patent1 is about a web browsers ability to seamlessly embed and interact with contents created from 3rd party plugins (used to display content not natively supported by a browser). Michael Doyle claim he invented this technique in 1993 when he was employed at the University of California. In 1994 UC filed a patent for it, which was granted them by the USPTO in 1998. Thus browser makers either have to license the technology or implement a workaround (such as the "click here to activate and use this control" feature) to avoid infringing the patent.

Personally I just take this as proof that the US patent system is flawed. Although I'm no expert on either the US patent system or this particular case, the patent claim/grant seems to be poorly documented, easily disputable2, way to wide-reaching and never should have been awarded. A patent I suspect Eolas never intended to use for anything else than suing someone with money in their pockets, though in the real world resulting in a more frustrating and less user friendly web experience for users. Hopefully the judicial efforts at Microsoft will one day be able to nullify the patent, hopefully also destroying Eolas in the process.

If you thought this was something that only relates to MS/IE, it's not. Opera has already followed MS and modified its web browser to side-step the Eolas patent. Although MS is the only company that have been sued for damages so far, there's nothing stopping Eolas for going after other browser makers and distributors as well. With large players avoiding licensing "Eolas' technology", I wouldn't be surprised if/when we see a lawsuit from Eolas against software makers such as Apple Computer or the Mozilla Corporation (both, although developing open source browsers, are commercial entities) or computer manufacturers such as Dell or HP (both distributing computers with software that uses/infringes this patent).

If you're using Opera, a solution is available; Mark Wilton-Jones have crafted a UserJS, No Click-To-Activate, that removes the need to click to activate objects! I've used this script for a while now, it works wonders with any plugin content and this far I haven't noticed any issues with it. For IE users I haven't seen any solution that can be applied by users to fix this annoyance.

Footnotes
  1. Although commonly referred to as the "Eolas patent", US Patent #5,838,906 is owned by the University of California. Eolas have only acquired the exclusive licensing rights of this patent. (locate)
  2. Pei-Yuan Wei, a computer engineer and former student at UC Berkeley, claims to have created a browser, ViolaWWW, that used plugins to display external content years before Doyle did with his WebRouser. Wei's claim seem to me to be well documented and I cannot understand why this alone doesn't invalidates the patent application (due to prior art). (locate)

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