Courts, Patents, XML, and Microsoft
According to i4i’s suit, the company owns a patent that saves users from having to embed command codes in their documents to control text formatting, and Microsoft’s XML formatting feature infringes on that. The patent in question, number 5,787,499, describes a system that removes the need for individual, manually embedded command codes to control text formatting in electronic documents.
The Judge’s order blocks Microsoft from selling or importing into the United States any version of Word that can open documents containing custom XML which includes .XML, .DOCX and .DOCM files. While the injunction blocks the sale of Word in its current state, it doesn’t prevent Microsoft from selling versions of the application that open XML documents as plain text.
As everyone knows by now, Microsoft has again been burned by the application of the patent system to the field of software. I maintain that the present patent and copyright system violates the Constitution, but even those who support the present system have problems with the way it was applied in this case.
Incidentally, both HP and Dell are asking to file “friend of the court” briefs supporting Microsoft’s appeal of this judgment.
I note that Andy Updegrove, whom I respect highly, doesn’t seem to think this is going to be the big, world-ending thing that everyone else seems to think. He’s right, of course, but I think it will be bigger than he thinks, particularly when coupled with the potential effects of Microsoft’s own XML in word processing patent.
Microsofties, I sincerely hope your company wins this case. I support you in this, even as I continue to disagree with the way that companies (including yours) are filing patents based on a misinterpretation of the clear meaning of the Constitution.
The patent appears to cover both the creation of the XML document and the file that’s created. That would allow a certain degree of leeway in terms of interoperability, as there is nothing here that would seem to cover reading a Microsoft-generated XML document, for example. But it certainly seems that Microsoft could assert that any word processor that used this class of XML storage as a native format was violating its patents.
The key question going forward is what Microsoft chooses to do with this patent now that it has been granted. The company is under pressure in both the US and EU to increase its software’s interoperability with that of its competitors, so a rigorous enforcement of this patent would seem like an express lane to further legal trouble, something the company has seemingly been anxious to avoid.
I hope that SteveB and company will awaken to the dangers posed by unlimited patents and copyrights and join me in calling for a greatly restricted scope for such “intellectual property”. Misusing patents and copyrights to lock up information for private profit harms everyone, as Microsoft is again learning. See the GeekPAC position paper for more information.
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