Business

This man claims Microsoft stole his greatest idea — & Android users are still paying for it 18 years later

Image Credit: Microsoft/YouTube

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.


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30 comments
Ken Lee
Ken Lee

I thought the difference between a copyright and a patent was that a patent has to have a design of a physical product and the copyright applies to ideas. An idea is a concept. There is some inherent protection when you put out an idea, but it is better to declare the idea is copyrighted. I didn't think you had to apply for a copyright.

Lauren Glenn
Lauren Glenn

The problem is that you can't copyright a concept.  If you make a game with a guy running around a maze, you can't sue me for infringement on the concept of a guy running around a maze unless the characters are similar and the mechanics are the same..... you're not guaranteed to win, but you may get it heard in court.



Michael DeMutis
Michael DeMutis

Why didn't they have their own patent before submiting to Microsoft?  Silly. Their indiegogo: $289USD

RAISED OF $35,000 GOAL.. LOL  I know its early but still... lolz.

Jiang Zhu
Jiang Zhu

idea is nothing without execution...

Navjot Singh
Navjot Singh

The link to PC Magazine article is broken. Please fix.

Ed Gudz
Ed Gudz

Appropriated ? ............ Microsoft "appropriated" the whole damn Windows operating system!


I wouldn't send them a picture of my dog without first at the very least I had it copyrighted, it is a well known fact that they are a bunch of thieves in Redmond.

Jon Gosier
Jon Gosier

Why is this sentence in the article:


"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."


#tangent

Hughes Hilton
Hughes Hilton

While it is sad that Microsoft may have appropriated this guy's idea, I think it's pretty bogus to say that Android users are paying for it today.  According to the recent revelations from China, Microsoft holds something like 300 patents which it believes are infringed in Android.  Royalties on those patents are rumored to be something like $5 - $10 per Android phone, but there's no indication that those royalties are broken out by patent.  Microsoft isn't licensing the 300 patents for $0.02 each, it's indemnifying the Android manufacturer for all of them as a block.  Microsoft wouldn't even tell most companies which patents they were violating until China forced its hand recently.  If this guy sued Microsoft and this one patent was invalidated, it would have exactly zero affect on Microsoft's Android patent licensing strategy.

Dave Chan
Dave Chan

I call BS. "Months later" as if enough time had passed between for MS to develop an idea based on what they brought in and release it.

Virginia Mushkatblat
Virginia Mushkatblat

Also, somehow, this idea that software and ideas should be free for all: why? Why exactly your work and creativity should not be valued? Why do you pay for building the house, and you do pay architect, not only crewmen? why do you pay fpr riding the metro: and you do pay the engineers not only crewmen, again? and why do you pay designers for clothing and YOU DO NOT THINK that someone has to pay for the software design, just for coding? what is wrong with these people, I do not understand it..

Virginia Mushkatblat
Virginia Mushkatblat

initially, patents were a way for a SMALL guy to protect themselves. Should it be in the patent code? The assumption that it is nothing novel, btw, is incorrect : the application of executable code into the mainly translated browser is novel, and him not filing the patent was shooting himself in the feet. Microsoft did not steal his idea, but it certainly did not behave ethically. That's why he should have invested into the patent before he talked to microsoft, especially after knowing the way Mirosoft behaved with windows... poor guys...

Marcus Greenwood
Marcus Greenwood

Fuck Microsoft and fuck Rob Morris. This kind of patent BS epitomises why patents hurt innovation

Peter Duff
Peter Duff

A large corporation stealing the little guys ideas? Surely NOT!

O MF
O MF

The problem is that Microsoft appear to be making patent royalty profits from the idea, not the execution.

Nicholas Miller
Nicholas Miller

I hear ya. The issue here, however, is that the idea was executed and in fact sold for a year before it was used by Microsoft. 

O MF
O MF

@Ed Gudz You don't "have" something copyrighted -- it's an automatic right whenever you create something. It doesn't need to be applied for or declared. I agree with your sentiment though! :)

Nicholas Miller
Nicholas Miller

@Jon Gosier The article is about a technology in a cell phone. The man who claims to have invented the technology doesn't use a cell phone...

Brandon Paddock
Brandon Paddock

Indeed. IE 3.0 was released in August of 1996. But there had been a public Alpha version in March of that year, and clearly they'd been working on it for a long time before that.


Also, many ideas seem "obvious" after you've seen or heard them. The web browser control for hosting browser views inside of other applications was clearly a clever and novel idea. It may be ubiquitous among platforms today, but in 1996 it was a big deal, and an opportunity that Netscape notably missed.

Murray Smith
Murray Smith

Go and come up with something new and innovative, patent it and then sell then try and sell a licence for it. 

This is what V_Graph did, this why they approached Microsoft, but in this case Microsoft had something very similar and  turned  V_Graph down.

 Rob Morris is just feeding the Idea that Microsoft have been stealing ideas and code from other's.

Ken Lee
Ken Lee

@O MF The idea AND the design (that meet patent requirements) is all you need to patent something. In fact it is a good idea if you patent something BEFORE you execute it. If you come up with an idea, spout it out to the world and then someone ELSE patents it, tough luck. That was your mistake. Worse, build it. Still, may be tough luck. You have to have witnesses and documentation that you produced the physical device first.

Lauren Glenn
Lauren Glenn

@O MF @Ed Gudz It makes it easier to defend in court if you have something official from the government.  It may be an automatic right but how long does it take to apply for a copyright vs. fighting after the fact trying to prove your point and rights?  I filed for copyrights..... it's not that hard to do.

Murray Smith
Murray Smith

@Brandon Paddock I for one agree, for Microsoft to add a feature into the browser 3 months before release is just plain stupid, at that stage you would be into the last of the beta testing trial's, concentrating on bug's and polishing the user interface, not having someone from high up asking the programming gods to add another feature to there already high work load.