From a suburb of Philadelphia, a man named Rob Morris watches Microsoft collect $3 billion in licensing fees from a patented technology he feels is ultimately his.
At the peak of Microsoft’s browser war with Netscape in 1996, a small two-man team by the name of V_Graph approached Microsoft with a novel browser component that could integrate web content into custom applications. They called their product “web widgets.”
Though appreciated, their offer was rejected and eventually returned to them. However, months later Microsoft launched Internet Explorer 3.0, and officially reigned supreme with the world’s first fully componentized browser — a technology conspicuously similar to V_Graph’s.
I spoke to the former president of V_Graph, Rob Morris, on his landline. He doesn’t have a cell phone and says he doesn’t need one. In 1996, his company was marketing its web browser component and even appeared in PC Magazine. However, when Microsoft “appropriated” V_Graph’s technology, according to Morris, his business was crushed.
“It was like the Wild West,” Morris told me. Amidst all the competition and innovation in the 1990s, lines of ethics and justice were blurred. “I didn’t think they’d actually get a patent on it, because for a patent you need something novel,” Morris said, “and we’d been selling it already for well over a year.”
U.S. Patent 6,101,510 makes absolutely no mention of V_Graph or its browser extension. According to Section 101 of the U.S. Patent Act, an invention is patentable if it is new, useful, and non-obvious. According to Morris, Microsoft’s patent meets only one of those requirements. Since V_Graph had sold the technology a year prior, it’s nothing new. Since the technology itself is simply the combination of a browser and a software component, it’s nothing non-obvious. Yet, since millions of Android users are forking over licensing fees to Microsoft, it’s clearly useful.
The usefulness of the technology extends beyond the user experience. According to Morris, his browser component helped Microsoft partner with AOL and crush Netscape’s Navigator. The little technology also saved Microsoft from their monopoly trials when Microsoft claimed that Internet Explorer was inextricably linked to their operating system.
Rob Morris is not a businessman out to steal someone’s profitable patent. According to him, he seeks justice for Android users who pay for a technology that was previously free. He’d also like a little recognition for what he says is rightfully his. He has launched an Indiegogo campaign called “Free The Browser,” in which he hopes to raise funds and finance a reexamination of Microsoft’s patent.