By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:54 am
In the latest apparent case of the U.S. patent system run amok, Judge Leonard Davis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a permanent injunction on Tuesday preventing Microsoft from selling versions of Word that handle custom XML in the form of the .DOCX, .DOCM, and .XML file formats. Which would mean that Microsoft is now forbidden from selling Word 2003 or Word 2007. And since it also forbids Microsoft from testing such versions of Word, there would seem to be implications for Office 2010 as well.
The ruling responds to a suit brought by Toronto-based document management company i4i in 2007. Microsoft says it’ll appeal the ruling, which appears to require it to pay a total of $277 million to i4i.
I stuck an “apparent” in the first sentence of this story because I believe in the idea of patents, acknowledge that I’m not a patent attorney, and am willing to accept the possibility that a product like Word could indeed indeed violate a small company’s patent even though its removal from the market would cause massive headaches for millions of folks who didn’t violate anybody’s intellectual property. But the 1998 patent in question appears to be exceptionally broad, and XML is an open standard; if a company can prevent Microsoft from selling a word processor that uses customized XML to store documents, you gotta wonder if the company could use the precedent to kill off XML, period. Which would be simply nutty.
Of course, Word isn’t going away–not any more than BlackBerries vanished from the market as a result of the endless patent dispute between RIM and patent firm NTP earlier this decade. Microsoft has a 60-day window before sales must stop, and it could come up with any of a number of possible Hail Marys to resolve things–in fact, Computerworld’s take is that sales aren’t going to end at all. If Judge Davis’s ruling somehow sticks all the way to the Supreme Court, Microsoft would sign, grumble, and pay i4i a few cubic acres of cash to put the lawsuit behind it. (Actually, it would surely do a deal earlier in the process, and that’s presumably the outcome that i41 is hoping for.) That’s assuming that Microsoft can’t somehow rejigger Word or its file formats to preserve functionality and compatibility without patent problems; given that the suit was filed in 2007, it’s had plenty of time to work on that technical challenge.
In the short term, though, even a brief period of suspended Word sales is going to present massive hassles for vast numbers of businesses and consumers. What everybody’s going to do, I’m not sure–older versions of Word would XML capability wouldn’t be taboo I guess, nor would a version of Word 2007 with the XML features turned off. I don’t know enough about this stuff to know if WordPerfect and OpenOffice (both of which use XML) are at legal risk.
Me, I have a paid-for copy of Word 2007 and do much of my wordslinging in Google Docs and WordPress these days anyhow. But if PowerPoint (which also uses XML) is pulled off the market, I’ll panic…