Microsoft found itself ordered to stop selling current versions of Word, as well as pay millions in fines, to a small Canadian company, i4i, over an XML-related patent violation. However, Microsoft has both legal appeals and code-based workarounds that could prevent it from being damaged by the ruling. An analyst suggested that the relevance of i4i's XML patent may prove short-lived.
When a U.S. District Court judge in Texas
ruled that Microsoft had violated an XML-related patent held by i4i, a small Canadian company, the verdict seemed to potentially
threaten both Microsoft and the open-source community.
As part of the verdict, Microsoft
was banned from "selling, offering to sell, and/or importing in or into the
United States any infringing and Future Word Products that have the capability
of opening a .DOCX or .DOCM file (-an XML file') containing custom XML." Microsoft was given 60 days to yank both Microsoft Word 2003 and Microsoft Word
2007, both of which supposedly violated i4i's patent, within 60 days.
lawsuit also had the potential to affect the open-source community,
particularly the XML-based OpenDocument Format (ODF), the open alternative for spreadsheets,
word-processing and other productivity applications. While XML is a public-domain format, and ODF does not violate the "custom XML" detailed in i4i's patent, there was a possibility that the upcoming version of the format, ODF 1.2, could potentially have a legal hurdle since it supposedly contains XML customized beyond the traditional boundaries of open XML.
Since the announcement of the verdict, though, several ways have been
suggested for Microsoft to potentially shake itself loose of i4i's lawsuit.
First, Microsoft could simply remove or disable the offending code, which
would allow the current versions of Word to be sold. It could also substitute
its own technology; on Aug. 4, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued
Microsoft patent 7571169, which describes a "word-processing document stored in
a single XML file that may be manipulated by applications that understand XML." Inserting that into either the current or future versions of Word would allow them to potentially circumvent the ruling.
Even with a technological workaround, that leaves Microsoft to deal with the
fines leveled against it by the ruling, which currently approach $300 million.
In a statement to eWEEK, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company intends
to appeal the decision, which could potentially tie the matter up for years.
One analyst suggested that i4i patented technology could soon be superseded by
Microsoft's own patented XML technology.
"My quick take is this: i4i is a pretty small company that makes an XML Word plugin, one of about 4-5 vendors that do this, and this is a threatened segment going forward as Microsoft continues to add XML functionality to Word," Melissa Webster, an analyst with IDC, wrote in
an e-mail to eWEEK. "I can't comment on the validity of i4i's patent
infringement claims, but Microsoft is certainly an attractive target for a
"The reverse is true for OpenOffice.org," Webster added. "Who
do they sue, exactly?"
Indeed, while the open-source community could ensure that future versions of
ODM do not include any code that would place it in violation of i4i's
patent, the somewhat nebulous nature of that community would also shield
it from potential lawsuits.
The verdict may represent an early victory for i4i, but there are signs that
the issue could drag on for many months to come.
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.