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Dissecting the Microsoft Word Injunction

by polrid | January 4, 2010January 4, 2010 6:33 pm PST

Toronto’s extensible markup language (XML) specialists Infrastructures for Information Inc. (i4i) filed an action against Microsoft back in March 2007 alleging that the software giant had infringed Patent  No. 5,787,449 of 1998 (which “created a reliable method of processing and storing content and metacodes separately and distinctly”) by including protected code in various versions of Word without agreement. A US District Court ruling on May 20th 2009 ruled against Microsoft, finding that the company’s handling of certain aspects of .xml, .docx and .docm files had indeed infringed i4i’s patented algorithms.

Universally speaking

Using XML allows applications and programs to process and manipulate data in a variety of different formats without going through complicated conversion layers. Or as Stephen from Windows 7 News puts it, “Speak XML and the language may be French, the country may be Australia, and the car may be Nissan…but the end result no matter where or when…will be the same.”

i4ii4i’s algorithms allow users to customize XML so that encoded data can be seamlessly exchanged between programs. While Microsoft has played down the importance of the infringed code’s role within Word,  referring to it as “obscure functionality”, i4i has countered with, “this is a very, very important functionality, and a huge reason that Microsoft put forward to potential customers to buy the new Office 2003 and Office 2007” and states that it is already taking many calls from concerned users.

A final judgement was issued in August which confirmed the damages as in excess of $290 million and ordered Microsoft to end its sales of versions of Word which included the protected code within two months. Microsoft subsequently appealed the decision.

How final is final?

Happily for i4i, the US Court of Appeals has now upheld the earlier decision and given Microsoft until January 11th 2010 to comply with the District Court’s order to halt sales of Word or remove the XML customization code. i4i’s Loudon Owen (pictured above left) said of the ruling, “We could not be more satisfied with the ruling from the appeals court which upheld the lower court’s decision in its  entirety. This is both a vindication for i4i and a war cry for talented inventors whose patents are infringed.” Owen also confirmed that Microsoft will continue to be monitored for possible future infringements, saying  “We are going to look extremely carefully at all Microsoft products.”

word2007Meanwhile, Redmond’s Microsoft has issued a mandatory patch for US versions of its Office 2007 suite. After installation, “Word will no longer read the Custom XML elements contained within DOCX, DOCM, or XML files. These files will continue to open, but any Custom XML elements will be removed.”

According to Microsoft’s Kevin Kutz though, the “injunction applies only to copies of Microsoft Word 2007 and Microsoft Office 2007 sold in the United States on or after  the injunction date of  January 11, 2010. Copies of  these products sold before this date are not affected.” This effectively means that technical support for the customizing of XML can continue to be made available for legacy users, including those who own Word 2003, but Microsoft is forbidden from giving out any help to anyone who purchases Word in the US after the January deadline.

Of course, it may be a while before i4i sees any payment from Microsoft given the latter’s statement that it is “considering our legal options, which could include a request for a rehearing by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals en banc or a request for a writ of certiorari from the US Supreme Court” and that it is not required to part with any cash until 15 days after all possible legal measures have been exhausted.

However, a possible upshot of this result could be an earlier-than-planned availability for the Office 2010 suite (which is currently available for beta download and, at the time of writing, penned in for actual release in June 2010), which doesn’t contain any of the code covered by the injunction.

Have you ever used the customizable XML feature in Word 2003 or 2007? Are you surprised by the David slaying Goliath ruling against Microsoft?