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Did i4i really win its case against Microsoft?

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Aug. 25, 2009

Microsoft recently found itself ordered by a U.S. Court to stop selling its current versions of Word, as well as to pay millions of dollars in fines, to i4i, a tiny Canadian company over an XML-related patent violation lawsuit.

But the software giant now has both legal appeals and code-based workarounds to its software that could potentially prevent it from being damaged by the ruling. At least that is what Microsoft's team of expensive lawyers are hoping for.

Now an industry observer however is suggesting that the relevance of i4i's XML patent may prove to be short-lived. Others disagree. So what will i4i's real future look like? Does it stand to really benefit from the Court's ruling against the software behemoth?

Opinions differ widely, depending to whom you talk to.

But here's where things really get a bit more complicated: when a U.S. District Court judge in Texas ruled that Microsoft had violated an XML-related patent held by i4i, the verdict seemed to potentially threaten not just Microsoft but the whole open-source community as well.

As part of the Court's ruling, Microsoft was also banned from “selling, offering to sell, and/or importing in or into the U.S. any infringing and Future Word Products that have the capability of opening a .DOCX or . DOCM file ('an XML file') that contains or has the potential of containing custom XML code."

Additionally, Microsoft was given no more than sisty days to remove both Microsoft Word 2003 and Microsoft Word 2007, both of which supposedly violated i4i’s patent, within the same 60-day delay.

But since the announcement of the Court ruling, several ways have been suggested for Microsoft to potentially free itself of i4i’s lawsuit. At least that's what some observers think.

For one thing, Microsoft could simply remove or disable the offending code, which would allow the current versions of Word to still be sold. It could also substitute its own technology!

On August 4th, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Microsoft Patent No. 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 completely circumvent the Court ruling.

If that happens, i4i will still find itself on the losing end of the stick...

Even with a technological workaround, that leaves Microsoft to deal with the fines levied against it by the Court ruling, which oscillates at around $300 million. A Microsoft spokesperson was quoted as saying that "the company intends to appeal the decision, which could potentially delay the Court's decision for many additional years."

Whether that will happen or not still remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: will i4i lose in this? And what about the open source community?

One industry analyst suggests that i4i's patented technology could soon be superseded by Microsoft's own patented XML technology. And yes, the lawsuit certainly does have 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 is still a possibility that the upcoming version of the format, ODF 1.2, could potentially have other legal implications as well, since it also contains XML customized code beyond the traditional boundaries of open XML.

Melissa Webster, an analyst with IDC says “for one thing, i4i is a very small company that makes an XML Word plugin, one of about 4 or 5 similar software vendors that pretty much do the same thing, and this is a threatened segment going forward as Microsoft continues to add XML functionality to Word and to Excel."

She added "I can’t comment on the validity of i4i’s patent infringement claims, but Microsoft is certainly an attractive target for a lawsuit that could potentially earn some very large sums of money in this type of legal battle. After all, Microsoft has the resources to hire and retain the best patent infrigement lawyers."

While the open-source community could ensure that future versions of ODM don't 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.

It will in deed be interesting to see how these legal developments unfold in the near future.

The open source and Linux community has all the reasons in the world to closely watch these developments as they happen, and to stand up for its own rights, and for the benefit of all concerned.

Source: Linux News Today.

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