Microsoft, XML, Injunctions & Patents

August 17th, 2009

I avoided writing last week about the news that Microsoft had been awarded a patent of some sort having to do with XML and word-processing. I also avoided delving too deeply into what was behind the granting of the patent because as a sometimes expert-witness in patent litigation I knew I’d have to take a month off to really get a grip on what was behind granting it. Then I read an article somewhere (I forget where) in which a Microsoft spokesperson said that the reason for seeking the patent was not to sue every company in the world, but in fact to sue no one, so I let it drop.

Then a strange other shoe dropped. The August 12th news was abuzz with the story that a small Canadian company, i4i, successfully received a judgement against Microsoft related to Word and XML, for upwards of $300 million, a judgement that would also prevent Microsoft from selling Word in its current version. What to make of all of this?

Well, the story is nothing if not complex. Of course there’s a piece out now about a leaked Microsoft email that implies that Microsoft knew about i4i’s patent and technology and decided to just steal it. I suppose this is not impossible, but strikes me as highly improbable.

Worse if you make the great mistake of trying to delve into the real complexities of the two patents, which can be done on O’Reilly’s site and elsewhere, you’ll soon find yourself down Alice’s hole into Wonderland, and wishing desperately to escape.

The major issue for the future of publishing is whether this is a major setback to the adoption of XML in the publishing industry. Most of us agree that XML is a great benefit to most publishers, and while complex to implement, the implementation should include a workflow that begins somewhere near Microsoft Word.

My prediction is that all of this will flow through the courts and the wallets of the lawyers and in due time calm will resume.

Update September 4th: The court has granted a stay on the injunction against Microsoft and will hear the next round in the case on September 23rd.