Brad Feld

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A Patent Ban on Microsoft Word and a Haiku

Aug 12, 2009
Category Technology

I haven’t written about software patents in a while.  I still hate them and think they are an illogical construct.  But first, a haiku from xkcd to warm you up (and make you smile).

Haiku Proof

I woke up this morning to the announcement that Microsoft can’t sell Word anymoreApparently a judge in that hot bed of intellectual thought and discourse, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, has ordered 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.”

Wait, is this the same Microsoft that was forced to change their doc formats and make them “more open” by some judiciary somewhere for antitrust (“anticompetitive”?) reasons.  Ok.  But wait, the rabbit hole gets deeper.

Apparently this injunction (filed by i4i – a company that according to their web page provides “Labeling Conversion, Collaborative Authoring, Document Management and Publishing Solutions to support your global regulatory compliance requirements.”) is based on an assertion that Microsoft willfully violates a 1998 patent (No 5,787,449) about how to “create and edit XML content from a word processor.” 

Pause for a second.  Note the irony and weirdness of all of this.  There have been a spate of specific XML related patents recently (I’m going to bet that Microsoft has a few of them – why not, gotta keep that patent group busy.)  Um – isn’t XML an open standard?  Aren’t there a bunch of document processors that read and write XML (like all of them)?  Seems like it should be illegal (or at least invalid) to be granted a patent on something built on top of an open standard!  Nah – let’s just argue about GPL and its various forms for a while – that’s more fun.

It gets worse.  The judge in the case, in addition to enjoying torturing Microsoft with an injunction, ordered Microsoft to pay i4i over $290 million in damages.  At this point I paused and pondered why a Canadian company was suing Microsoft in East Texas.  Maybe it’s warmer there.  I certainly know the beer isn’t better.  I could keep going, but I’m running out of sarcasm (has someone patented that yet?)

In one of my fantasy parallel universes, long time software thought leaders – ranging from individual software artists (you know who you are) to the very largest companies would get together and decide how to take an approach to this absurdity that could be proposed to the appropriate government entities (we’ll start with the PTO and Congress, but it’s always worth a trip to the Supreme Court if necessary.)  To do this, some of the largest software companies need to step back from their stupid case by case legal strategies and decide to try to reform (transform?) how this works.  Until then, it’s probably going to just going to go on and on and on.

Q.E.D., Bitches! indeed.  That’s often how I want to just end my argument on software patents, but I know this particular universe doesn’t work that way.  Too bad for me.

Oh – and did anyone notice that a different judge (Patel in this case) ruled against RealDVD and “granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the major motion picture studios and DVD-CCA in their legal battle with Real Networks over its RealDVD products.”  I’m going for a run now – maybe that’ll make me happier.