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Web standards group scrutinizing Apple patent

The W3C seeks prior art in an effort to get a handle on an Apple patent that could hold back the consortium's work to standardize Web applications.

The World Wide Web Consortium is opening the possibility of pushing back against an Apple patent on software updates that Apple had refused to license royalty-free for use in a proposed Web standard.

The W3C announced June 12 that it's seeking prior art relating to Apple's patent No. 5,764,992--in other words, examples of the patent's technology in use that predate the patent itself. The patent, which Apple applied for in 1995 and was granted in 1998, involves this scenario: "a software program running on a computer automatically replaces itself with a newer version in a completely automated fashion, without interruption of its primary function, and in a manner that is completely transparent to the user of the computer."

The consortium, which oversees standards including the HTML for Web page publishing and the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) image format, is working on a draft standard called Widgets 1.0: Updates that governs how Web-based applications can update themselves. Apple in March said it wasn't willing to include the patent's 30 claims in the royalty-free licensing requirements of W3C standards.

To deal with the patent matter while continuing with development of the standard, the consortium set up a patent advisory group (PAG).

"The PAG seeks information about software update systems available before June 1995 that offer a viable solution that may apply to the use of updates in Widgets," the W3C said about the prior-art search. "Such information could suggest ways to define a specification that can achieve the working group's goals without implementers infringing on the disclosed patent."

Finding prior art could help overturn the patent, but W3C spokesman Ian Jacobs said the consortium hasn't yet concluded what measures to take.

"There are lots of options once we have more information," Jacobs said. "One possible outcome, should we find prior art, is the patent might be re-evaluated. If it turns out there is prior art, that will be fodder for the next discussion."

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Work on the draft specification can continue while the advisory group deals with the patent, Jacobs said, but the patent does complicate matters. "Does it cast a shadow over the specification? The answer is yes, until we have a better sense over the scope of the patent."

Via Dion Almaer

Corrected at 5:15 p.m.: This story initially misstated which standards the W3C oversees. It oversees HTML, Portable Network Graphics, and others.