HTML Helps, But You Can’t Try This at Home!

About four years ago, I got a phone call from a law firm in Pittsburgh asking me if I was the same Ed Tittel who wrote HTML For Dummies. When I of course replied “Yes,” my interlocutor — let’s call him “Alex” — proceeded to open up an extraordinarily interesting can of worms for my inspection. It seems I wrote the first edition of this book long enough ago — it shows a copyright date of 1995, but was actually released in December of 1994 — that it predated the filing of some patents related to Web technology and e-commerce that had become the focus of a lawsuit that alleged their infringement. I’m not at liberty to disclose the identities of the parties involved, other than to say we had some huge online retailers on the defendants’ side, and a company that specialized in “mining the value of its IP” (intellectual property) on the other side.

Since 2009, in fact, I’ve been involved in six patent cases, all of which revolved around HTML and CSS, plus a collection of Web technology bits and pieces. This work is fascinating, absorbing, and occasionally depressing, because I keep facing the odd appearance that the US Patent Office has been hornswoggled into allowing smart inventors and their IP attorneys to claim certain functions or natural consequences of HTML, CSS, and other standard Web technologies as part and parcel of their protected intellectual property.

However, it is most definitely not my place to question the USPO when I get hired to research and testify about such things. Instead, it is my job to explain why and how the defendants’ systems and behaviors don’t actually meet all the conditions spelled out in varying levels of detail and precision in the claims of those patents. This is time-consuming, difficult, and painstaking work, but also enjoyable and absorbing. And one totally unexpected side effect has been to teach me that patent lawyers, contrary to many unflattering stereotypes, are some of the hardest-working and smartest people I have ever met in my life (and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some real nonpareils in many fields in my 30-plus years in and around computing).

Why am I telling you these things? For several reasons:

  1. Because it shows that you never know in advance what kinds of consequences your work and interests can produce in the long run. In addition to my many books on HTML, XHTML, CSS, and XML, I have also written a collection of titles on Web programming languages, CGI, Web development, and e-commerce. Although those latter books failed to attract as many buyers as the markup language books — because there are far fewer Web application and infrastructure developers than there are Web page authors and maintainers, and wannabes — they have paid a welcome and unexpected dividend in bringing me into a new line of work in the second half of my working life.
  2. Because it shows how important the Web has become to the way we live and work in today’s modern world. If this stuff wasn’t important and valuable, it wouldn’t spawn so much intellectual, social, economic, and even legal activity. Having been around before the Web was introduced, and lucky enough to tune into its inner workings relatively early as the game began to be played, I’m continually astonished at how the Web pervades every aspect of daily life and work these days. Not just because of this legal work, but for many reasons, I literally make my living through the Web (I’m writing this blog through the Web-based WordPress application right now, in fact).
  3. Because it keeps showing and telling me that HTML (and other markup languages, especially CSS and XML plus all its many, many derivatives) really matter. It’s not just enough to know how to use the tools that can manipulate these things for you at your general direction. It really does help to know how and why this stuff works, how to use it properly, and how to inspect, understand, and fix it when the need arises.

And of course, you never know when something you dig into deeply is going to open avenues into other activities and opportunities you never expected. I’m not saying something as crass or unbelievable as “Learn HTML, become an expert like me.” That’s pretty darn unlikely, even in my  case, and I have to acknowledge a large component of randomness and luck in winding up in my current gig. But what I am saying is “Dig deeply, and who knows what you may turn over in your search for understanding and competence?” At least in my case, this has brought me into a world I knew little or nothing about, and provided me with entry into something of great personal and perhaps even societal value. Who knows what it can do for you?

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