What goes around, comes around: Microsoft win one XML patent and lose another

xmlThere is a saying that irony is lost on Americans. I’ve no idea if such a crass generalisation has any truth to it or not, but if any American (or anyone else) is in any doubt over what irony means, they need look no further than our friends at Redmond: Microsoft.

Last week, Microsoft were awarded a patent on what they claimed would be an open standard, namely OXML. OXML is an XML based file format and the patent is intended to protect the formatting and editing of Word documents that use XML. Fast forward five days and this time a judge in Texas rules that Word documents that use XML are in violation of an XML-related  patent held by i4i.

In an ideal world, this ironic turn of events will cause people to wake up to just how broken and stupid the American patent system is. In a perfect world, everyone would then look at XML and wonder what sort of insanity caused humanity to think XML was anything other than possibly the most idiotic way of storing data ever imagined. We don’t live in either an ideal or perfect world though.

More likely, the i4i case will drag on through the courts before a settlement is reached and Microsoft’s patent will be used in any future stand-off with the EU over open standards and word processing. And the insanity of software patents will continue unabated.

Clueless Judge rules against UK patent office and leaves the UK wide open to a software patent invasion

Here in Britain, we have largely escaped the insanity of software patents that afflicts the USA. We used to have a clear and unambiguous law that software-only inventions could not be patented. Those laws are – through design – open to interpretation by judges. Judges are undoubtedly clever people when it comes to understanding the law, but in the case of Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury and his cohorts Lord Justic Jacob and Lord Justice Maurice Kay, grasping simple technology concepts appears way too complex for them.

Nokia applied for a patent for a piece of software which makes other software run faster on a computer. The European Patent Office – which is also staffed by technological incompetents – duly awarded the patent, even though they should not have done so under EU patent law (not least do to prior art considerations). Thankfully our UK patent office applies the rules far better and threw the application out. So Nokia took the case to court. The appeal court has now ruled that a piece of software that makes a computer perform better is not just a software invention because “…it has the knock-on effect of the computer working better as a matter of practical reality.” So apparently “better” is now a technical term and any piece of software that makes a computer work better is patentable. In other words, any piece of software could be patented under this rule.

Software patents benefit no one but giant companies that can throw money at bamboozling patent offices into accepting their patent applications. It is far too costly in most situations for SMEs or individuals to apply for such patents. Europe – and especially Britain – has long fought to prevent US-style software patents becoming a reality here. Sadly all that effort may have been undone through the actions of one idiot judge. This is a good day for giant corporations; it is though a very bad day for SMEs and consumers. Hopefully the UK patent office will not give up and will take this to the House of Lords, who might finally see sense and throw the case out. I won’t hold my breath though…

Netmite Corp try to con the greedy into buying a worthless patent

netmite.pngNetmite Corporation issued a press release on the 18th March announcing the sale of U.S. Patent 6,418,462 at the Ocean Tomo Spring 2008 Live IP Auction on April 2nd at The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. So what? Well they rather boldly claim that the patent covers AJAX technology and that therefore every existing AJAX site could be in breach of the patent:

” The patent, which will be offered as Lot 7, discloses methods for allowing additional tasks being performed by a client through a sideband communication channel in addition to the main communication channel between a client and server. The patent contains broad claims covering general methods for diverse industries of web, Internet services, communications, and entertainment.”

If true, there are a whole range of big, rich companies out there, such as Google, ripe for suing for infringing the patent. Before you rush to get your cheque books out though, it’s worth pointing out a huge flaw in this reasoning by Netmite Corporation. Their supporting documentation describes the patent claim as being:

1. A method in a metacomputing, distributed network of utilizing remote client resources in the network, comprising:

server that implements tasks by utilizing idle resources in multiple clients;

individual communication channels between each client and the server;

a second, separate dedicated communication channel (sideband channel) between each client and server, through which the server distributes the tasks to the each client downstream and through which each of the clients sends the results of the task upstream to the server.

Anyone who has even the most basic understanding of AJAX will know that AJAX works through the same channel as all other communications between the client and server, and that it doesn’t involve the server distributing tasks to clients. However even if one could successfully argue that the asynchronous communications that underpin AJAX are described by this patent, there is still a problem. Since their creation (before this patent was filed), clients have asynchronously communicated with the server to fetch images. That constitutes prior art, I suspect.

However all is not lost for Netmite: there is one very obvious use made of this patent. Criminal gangs use these techniques to get “zombie” PCs to spam the world with emails offering cheap porn, penis extensions and fake Viagra. Perhaps the buyer of the patent could try suing these criminal lowlifes…

Microsoft admit anti-trust defeat and offer up APIs and IP to competitors & open source community

ms_peeps.jpgI listened to my my first “virtual press conference” today given by Microsoft. I certainly picked a big one as my first. I actually got to hear Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, say the words “open source” without spitting, swearing or making any negative remarks! What is the world coming to?

Well the world is coming to its senses and realises that it doesn’t have to be scared of Microsoft and Microsoft is coming to its senses and realising that it cannot own the world (and will just have to be happy with a significant chunk of it.) So the press release was the final fling in a long and probably very painful process of Microsoft opening itself up to its competitors and to the open source community. Today Microsoft announced the launch of its four new interoperability principles:

  1. Ensuring open connections
  2. Promoting data portability
  3. Enhancing support for industry standards
  4. Fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities.

So what does that all mean? Well translated it means:

  • Microsoft have promised to publish the APIs and communications protocols for all their high volume products (Vista, Office 2007, Sharepoint 2007, Exchange 2007, Server 2008). No license will be required to access this information.
  • Open source developers can freely use these communication protocols without having to pay royalties and without fear of being sued. Commercial use must be paid for.
  • Recent forays into open source with collaborations with the Mono, MySQL and PHP teams is due to continue and become part of how Microsoft works.
  • As a start, Microsoft will be adding some 3,000 extra pages of API information to MSDN so that everyone – not just those that have bought trade secret licenses – can access the information.

Why have they done this? Well clearly the EU can take a lot of the credit with its dogged pursuit of anti-trust cases against Microsoft. The bigger picture though is likely simply a realisation within Microsoft that open source isn’t going to go away. Having won the browser war, they have watched Firefox erode that dominant position for example. That they now own nearly the entire paid-for development tool market has meant that universities now routinely teach LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL & PHP) and Java as they are free development environments. Perhaps the weight of arguably the world’s most powerful political bloc, combined with the quiet determination of the open source community, has finally broken the Microsoft bronco?

Whatever the reasons though, this has certainly been a historic day for software developers, both within the Microsoft fold and without.

Read, watch and listen to full details of the press release here.

Amazon lose another patent battle.

amazon.pngBack in October, I reported on Amazon’s defeat by a Lord of the Rings actor. Well it looks like a bad year on the patent front for Amazon as the European Patent Office has overturned another patent within Europe. This time it was the trusty FFII who successfully challenged Amazon. The patent was “a method in a computer system for co-ordinating delivery of a gift from a gift giver to a recipient, the gift and recipient being specified in a gift order”.

Read the (now defunct) patent claim here.

Read the FFII press release here.

Amazon loses patent battle to a Lord of the Rings Actor

Once there was an actor from New Zealand who got a bit part in the Lord of the Rings films. Finding himself out of work after they were finished, he wondered what he could do next. Then it hit him: challenge Amazon’s “One click” software patent! So the man from New Zealand took on the mighty might of a mighty company … and won!

(OK I admit it; I just made up the bit about him being out of work).

The rest though is true. Peter Calveley did appear in Lord of the Rings and he did decide to challenge the validity of Amazon’s one-click patent. And, as was widely reported this week, he won and the US patent office has ruled against 21 of 26 claims within the patent.

As someone who hates the whole concept of software patents, I think this great news!

UPDATE: 29/10/2007

I came across an interesting new twist to this story on the Register today. Seems that a company owned by Amazon effectively helped Peter Calveley with his case against Amazon. Oh the irony! 😀

Is the FFII losing the plot?

FFIIIs the FFII losing the plot, or am I being sucked into Microsoft’s trap?

I normally read the FFII (Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure) press releases with interest as I feel they were instrumental in persuading the European Parliament to reject US-style software patents. Software patents are one of the great technology evils of the modern age, but they mean big money for big businesses, and so there is constant pressure upon the European Parliament to make them legally binding here in Europe. The FFII represent many small and medium-sized businesses that know that software patents would be bad for their businesses.

So given that I normally think highly of the FFII, why the title of this blog post? It is prompted by their latest press release: “Microsoft will trump EU competition ruling with patents. It is in response to the news today that Microsoft has lost its antitrust case appeal. Aparently though, this isn’t good news, as FFII president Pieter Hintjens explains, “The decision seems positive but it is five years out of date. During that time, Microsoft has lobbied for software patents in Europe and bought patents on many trivial concepts. It has claimed patent violations against Linux, put patent timebombs into its formats and interfaces, and turned fear of patents into a core part of its business strategy. It will now open its formats, because that lets it extend its software patent franchise even further.”

This just doesn’t ring true to me. I personally think that Microsoft is in the process of shifting its business model as its previous anti-competitive practices have put many businesses and governments off. It’s a giant organisation though and some bits seem to be adapting faster than others. Thus we see the one company threatening Linux users with patents on the one hand, whilst giving to the Linux community with Moonlight with the other hand. I therefore think that the FFII have lost the plot with this one. The nagging doubt that they are right and that Microsoft have suckered me remains though.