Thursday, August 13, 2009

Microsoft Loses Patent Infringement Suit over XML

Breaking news: Yesterday, Aug. 12, Microsoft was found to infringe U.S. Patent 5,787,449, "Method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other." The patent describes a method for the separate manipulation of the architecture and content of a document, particularly for data representation and transformations. The system includes a map of metacodes in the document and is said to provide for multiple views of the same content, the ability to work solely on structure and solely on content, storage efficiency of multiple versions, and efficiency of operation. And all that boils down to XML. This may have even bigger implications, according to a CNET report, "Microsoft's 'Custom XML' patent suit could put ODF at risk":
The infamous U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has slapped Microsoft with a permanent injunction that "prohibits Microsoft from selling or importing to the United States any Microsoft Word products that have the capability of opening .XML, .DOCX or DOCM files (XML files) containing custom XML," according to CNET. This likely won't stop Microsoft Office from shipping, as CNET's Ina Fried writes, but the bigger question may be whether the lawsuit will reach beyond Redmond to also threaten the Open Document Format (ODF).
CNET also quotes Gartner analyst Brian Prentice about the patent itself:
I think this one might actually have some legs. Keep in mind is that this claim was filed back in 1994. The claim considers the existing state of the art at that time....

One thing seems clear to me - this is not a typical rubbish software patent that earns its filer a 20 year monopoly on the dead obvious. Fifteen years ago this would seem to me to have been an innovative idea....

The litigant, "i4i", is being was awarded $200 million in compensatory and $40 million punitive damages. For further details, see PatentlyO and Prima Facie News.

Microsoft has 60 days to comply. If things change, they will have to quit selling Microsoft Word or change it to remove or modify the current .docx format, perhaps using a patch to take out the infringing features. As Dennis Couch at PatentlyO observes, they could also buy the patent, but it's going to cost a lot more now than it did in 2007.

This case will be used to bemoan software patents and suggest that patents are a bad thing. Some patents are bad and should never have been issued. But assuming this is a valid and reasonable patent, then I would say no, it's not patents that are bad. It's infringing and ignoring other people's valid intellectual property that is bad. Not to mention dangerous and costly.

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