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...
December 22, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics
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