News of Microsoft’s move to file XML-related patents in Europe and New Zealand is being seen in some quarters as an attempt by the Redmond, Washington-based software company to erect barriers to competitors seeking greater compatibility with the company’s market-dominating office suite.
“When Microsoft added an XML format to Word, suddenly Word’s format got technically a lot easier to reverse engineer,” Rob Helm, director of research for Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm in Kirkland, Washington, told TechNewsWorld.
“So companies like Corel and Sun that depend on being able to reverse the Office formats — their job got technically easier,” he said. “This patent would make it legally more dodgy to do that.”
Corel Not Happy
“We were surprised, and I wouldn’t say we were happy when we read that Microsoft was applying for patents in Europe and New Zealand,” said Richard Carriere, director of office productivity products at Ottawa-based Corel, which makes the WordPerfect office suite.
Because Extensible Markup Language is supposed to be an open standard, there have been cries of foul from some corners of the high-tech industry that Microsoft will undermine the openness of XML with its patent grab.
“If the open-source community intended to support the Word 2003 XML format, this will throw a wrench into those plans,” observed Helm. “It closes off a future avenue, but it doesn’t mess up their current plans or products.”
Normal Business Practice
According to Microsoft, it isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary with its patent filings. “Microsoft’s approach to patenting is consistent with the approach taken by other companies,” the company said in a statement to TechNewsWorld. “Our commitment to patenting around XML is in keeping with this industry-consistent approach. XML is a royalty-free standard, but companies are free to file patents on inventions that implement the standard.”
Nevertheless, some see Microsoft’s patent filing as a bold move — albeit one that may be doomed. “While Microsoft’s attempts to [file XML patents] would be an aggressive strategy in the world of XML, these attempts may be difficult given the negative perspective of software patents outside the United States,” James Muraff, a patent attorney and shareholder at Wallenstein Wagner & Rockey in Chicago, told TechNewsWorld.
“The United States is one of the most friendly countries in the world as far as software patents are concerned,” his colleague, Joseph Bernstein, added in a phone interview. “Most other countries in the world have rules that are much more restrictive.”
Bold But Doomed
“While the XML standard itself is royalty free, nothing precludes a company from seeking patent protection for a specific software implementation that incorporates elements of XML,” Microsoft said in its statement. “This is an industry-standard means of differentiation followed by other major companies. This does not, in any way, change the royalty-free nature of the XML standard itself.”
“Microsoft may face a significant backlash from the press and from the open-source movement if it should try to enforce any granted patents in the future in this area,” Muraff asserted.
Filed To Lose?
But Microsoft may not be concerned about whether its patent applications are approved, Bernstein contended. “My take on these patents is that Microsoft is trying to patent its technology not for the purpose of trying to assert the patents against someone else,” he said. “I think what Microsoft is trying to do is get these XML patents only so other people can’t.”
“As far as Microsoft is concerned, it’s a lot cheaper to try and get a patent and fail than to let someone else get the patent and get sued on it years later,” he explained. “By applying for these patents in these countries, they’re saying, ‘We don’t care if we can’t get the patent on it, but we want you to know that you can’t give it to other people either.'”
The problem here isn’t what will happen if MS fails to get the patent (which might be quite a good thing) but what will happen if they do. Will we see a whole slew of file-format patents being used to prevent interop to other packages, to protect MS’s dwindling monopoly pool?