Microsoft Applies for Language Technology Patent

The company says its verb conjugation method will help users learn other languages, while critics say the attempt points to problems with the patent system.

Microsoft is asking the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a patent that will cover its system for selecting and conjugating verbs.

The Redmond, Wash., software firm filed a patent application on Aug. 31 for a computer-based verb conjugating system. Microsoft says it believes that complex software algorithms can be used to help people learn new languages, and that its technology will go further than the software tools currently available.

The method to be patented includes receiving a verb in a base language; identifying verb forms in the target language using a translation of the received verb from the base language to the target language; and displaying the identified verb forms in the target language.

The full patent application can be viewed here.

David Kaefer, general manager for Intellectual Property and Licensing at Microsoft, confirmed that the company had filed the patent application, although he would not specify in which products the technology might currently be found or in which products it might be used in the future.

Kaefer said, "For everyone who struggled through French class in high school, they know verb conjugation is tough. Just like complex software algorithms can help a user spot flawed grammar or autocorrect spelling, software can help us learn new languages and were building methods to do just that."

For some time now, companies have sought patents for software inventions that help people identify and autocorrect spelling and grammatical mistakes, he told eWEEK.

"You can imagine that people writing multilingual documents might have a need for simple inventions that help them enhance their writing of those documents. As is the case with many challenges, there are often several ways of addressing the challenge, and this particular patent application identifies one such way of solving a complex software challenge," Kaefer said.

But Microsofts move is sparking criticism. Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, said this is just another example of how "completely out of control" the patent system is.

"Not only have our pro-patent courts and lawmakers expanded patent eligibility to include literally anything, including conjugating verbs, but theyve also said that doing something that was already known with the use of a computer can make it a new—and thus patentable—thing," he told eWEEK.

/zimages/4/28571.gifDoes abuse of patents present a hurdle to the evolution of technology? Click here to read more.

While the patent application acknowledges that software tools are currently available on the Internet to help a user who is learning a new language to conjugate verbs, it says that "they have various limitations. For example, if a user misspells the infinitive form or non-infinitive form of a verb, then the software tools report an error. The reporting of an error can be quite frustrating to a user who is trying to learn a language and has made a simple spelling error. The user is effectively prevented from learning the correct spelling of that verb," the application states.

The technology covered by Microsofts patent application and the associated art would go beyond that, and it presents "specific embodiments of the verb conjugating system," to which "various modifications may be made without deviating from the spirit and scope of the invention," the application says.

Microsofts verb conjugating system could also allow a user to retrieve verb forms by inputting a description of a verb form, or the verb conjugating system could allow a user to select from a list of verb forms, it says.

/zimages/4/28571.gifThe patent system and its abusers were recently in the hot seat. Read more here.

To support such retrieval by description, the verb search table may be modified to include a description plus the infinitive form in each entry. The verb conjugating system may use a base or target language selected by a user. "Accordingly, the invention is not limited except as by the appended claims," the application concludes.

PubPats Ravicher said this patent application "merely manifests Microsofts use of current patent law to their maximum benefit, and, as such, they cant be solely or even primarily to blame for its ridiculousness … Hopefully, at some point in the future, patent law will take into account its effect on all of the American people and begin to succumb to some elements of reasonableness and fairness."

Asked whether there is a possibility that PubPat, a not-for-profit legal services organization with the goal of representing the publics interests against the harms caused by wrongly issued patents and unsound patent policy, will try and prevent this latest Microsoft patent application from being granted, Ravicher said, "We generally do not comment on work we may or may not be undertaking."

Microsoft officials have equated patents with innovation. In July 2004, Chairman Bill Gates said that "over the next year, Microsoft will file for more than 3,000 patents—up very dramatically—and make us one of the top companies in the world in terms of innovative activities."

Such comments have fueled speculation that the company is accumulating a patent arsenal to use against competitors to its software, such as Linux companies.

That concern is underscored by the fact that Microsoft holds patents that cover technologies like the File Allocation Table, which is used by some open-source software applications to facilitate the exchange of data between Linux or Unix computers and Windows computers.

Some in the open-source community, like Eben Moglen, who is a Columbia University law professor, the general counsel for the Free Software Foundation and a board member of PubPat, have expressed concern that Microsoft could in the future decide to allege that Linux infringes on those patents and seek a royalty.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Microsoft FAT patent conflict.

That could threaten the very core of Linux, which is licensed under the GNU GPL (General Public License) and may not be distributed if it contains patented technology that requires royalty payments, Moglen has said.

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