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No, Microsoft Word's not going to vanish on Jan. 11

Pay no attention to headlines predicting that Microsoft Word will be banished from store shelves on Jan. 11 because of a patent ruling. The widely-used word processor isn't going anywhere, nor does today's ruling (PDF) by the District-based United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit represent any sort of earth-shattering development in patent law.

Instead, it's just another example of how in the tech universe, the benefits of patent lawsuits increasingly accrue only to the lawyers who can bill plaintiffs and defendants for their time.

Today's ruling upholds a judge's injunction issued after a district-court jury found that a feature in Microsoft's Word 2007, and the Office 2007 suite that includes Word, infringed on a patent held by i4i, a Toronto developer of tools for collaborative creation and editing. (That means i4i is no "patent troll"; it actually makes and sells products.)

The feature in question governs how programs deal with a specialized data format called XML, short for Extensible Markup Language, which Word uses in an alternate document format. It's arguable, as Computerworld writer Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes, that i4i never should have received this patent in the first place. But there also seems to be solid evidence that Microsoft knew about i4i's work before adding these features to Word, which is not essential for a finding of patent infringement but doesn't exactly make a defendant look good.

Either way, though, Microsoft is already moving to get out of the box the court's ruling put it in. In a statement issued earlier Tuesday, the Redmond, Wash., company said it "had put the wheels in motion to remove this little-used feature" from Word before the Jan. 11 deadline. The statement added that Microsoft's upcoming Word 2010 and Office 2010 "do not contain the technology covered by the injunction."

So here's the upshot of this ruling, assuming Microsoft successfully carries out that plan: Microsoft spends some time and money removing a feature most people don't use but doesn't have to pay any damages or stop selling its product, i4i gets a moment in the headlines but collects no money and a decent payday, patent lawyers rack up billable hours, most consumers never notice the difference.

That is how the patent system is supposed to work--if it turns out that you used an idea somebody else has already claimed, you come up with another way to solve the problem and, in so doing, expand the world's inventory of bright ideas. But it's fair to ask if all the effort put into "designing around" patents on things that don't involve any physical innovation and may be hard to distinguish from abstract math or logic always represents the most effective use of our collective brainpower.

The Supreme Court will have a chance to opine on that question sometime next year, when it takes up a case that could affect the validity of many business-method and software patents. Care to express a view on how you'd like to see that ruling come down? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 22, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics  
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I've been using Word for maybe 10 or 12 years. I find most of its features are "little used."

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | December 22, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

"A federal appeals court ordered Microsoft Corp. to . . . pay a Canadian software company $290 million for violating a patent, upholding the judgment of a lower court."

So why do you say that "i4i [will get] a moment in the headlines but collect no money"?

Posted by: LNER4472 | December 22, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

This is a completely ridiculous patent. I think MS should sue i4i out of business because their product saves files in Microsoft's .doc format. A sad day when Microsoft is good guy.

Bad article as regards patents. Product features shouldn't be patented, implementations should. By your logic, if VW was the first company to put a GPS in the dashboard, no other manufacturer should be allowed to do it.

Posted by: staticvars | December 22, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

"Microsoft . . . doesn't have to pay any damages."

Rob, I'm sure this is just a short lapse in your editing. As you probably know, curing infringement does not absolve liability/ damages for past infringement.

Posted by: restr8 | December 22, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

@LNER4472 @restr8: Good catch. I conflated the injunction and the damages when only the former is contingent on this feature still being sold on Jan. 11. Sorry about the screwup there (would that I could blame it on an excess of eggnog); I've updated the post.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | December 22, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

It's just a matter of time before we're all

Posted by: tuzoner | December 22, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

i think it's irresponsible of the media to be reporting that microsoft word is 'banned.' (AKA the washingtonpost). microsoft gets horrible press man, it's ridculous. am i standing up for microsoft? nope. but still, the bad press is worth noting. what is also worth noting is how no one has any idea what XML is. that's the humurous part of the situation.

Posted by: BMACattack | December 22, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

If Word is not going to vanish, I say "Too bad"! Word is the most frustrating piece of software that I've had the displeasure of trying to use. Can't we just have a simple version of Word without all the "helpful" features that erroneously anticipate what you want and put that into your document? Trying to undo what Word presumes to do to your documents is an exercise in futility. I go to great lengths to avoid tangling with Microsoft Word. When 45 minutes is not enough time to produce one page of text, something is seriously unfriendly with the software!!

Posted by: reekinghavoc51 | December 22, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

good day for patent holders. bad day for willful infringers like MS

Posted by: johng1 | December 22, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

There IS a rather substantial damage award of $240 million to i4i (congrats to i4i!). Likely will appeal to the higher court (SC).

Posted by: johng1 | December 22, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

staticvars, did you read the patent claims? Why is it ridiculous? Is it not novel, obvious? Why?

Posted by: johng1 | December 22, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

I have not read the claims staticvars, but I bet they are directed to the program functionality that is embedded in the code for Word, and must be removed.

In your analogy, the patented device would be the GPS thing, not the combination of car and GPS thing.

Posted by: johng1 | December 22, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

If you're using Word for anything other than office documents or designing invites to the company holiday party, you're using the wrong program.

Posted by: js_edit | December 22, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

"Can't we just have a simple version of Word without all the "helpful" features that erroneously anticipate what you want and put that into your document?"

These are usually the features that Microsoft is requested to add to the program. It's pretty easy to turn off what you don't want, but reading a manual or doing some training is beneath most people's dignity these days.

Posted by: memew | December 22, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

The link near the end, where the article reads "the most effective use of our collective brainpower", seems to be broken.

Posted by: yrral | December 22, 2009 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't save in xml and if so, word users will now not be able to convert those docs ?????

Posted by: | December 23, 2009 5:37 AM | Report abuse

Problem is lawyers. They serve no useful purpose. Jsut think of the effect on global warming and the planet if we eliminated all the lawyers on the planet.
The amount of trees saved would cause temps to drop framatically as would the decline in hot air.
Kill all the lawyers.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | December 23, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

"Can't we just have a simple version of Word without all the "helpful" features that erroneously anticipate what you want and put that into your document?"

There is a simple version and you have it already... it's called Wordpad

Posted by: ArchRival | December 23, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

After years of using Word, you shouldn’t need a manual to disable features. By Microsoft’s own admission most of Word (and Excel) contain many features that could be described as a “little-used feature." If Microsoft didn’t have such an embedded monopoly, its products would be “little-used” applications by now. Microsoft knows what it did and it should be compelled to pay the fine. Maybe the ribbon will help them…

Posted by: ummhuh1 | December 23, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

wrt "little used features" - every feature is not really "needed" until... well, until you NEED it. Then it's essential!

You can get by with 1% of Word's functionality if you're writing a business letter. If you're organizing a complex document with sections, subsections, images, charts, etc., then you need its more complex features. I get annoyed when somebody says that software should be dumbed down for everybody just because his or her needs are simple.

Pricing is more of an issue - I can understand a grievance against paying for features you don't use. How about a pay-per-feature model of licensing, then? Need to insert an image into your Word doc? Well, you haven't paid for that feature yet... but we'll happily direct you to a website where you can upgrade your license to include that feature. Yeah, that'll go over REAL well.

Or you could break the shackles and use open-source tools, where YOU decide how much to donate depending on your usage level.

Posted by: jamshark70 | December 24, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

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