Court's patent ruling won't keep Microsoft Word off the shelves

Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A12

Ruling doesn't spell doom for Microsoft Word

Pay no attention to headlines predicting that Microsoft Word will be banished from store shelves on Jan. 11 because of a patent ruling.

The widely used word processor isn't going anywhere; nor does Tuesday's ruling by the D.C.-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit represent any sort of earth-shattering development in patent law.

Tuesday's ruling upholds a judge's injunction issued after a district court jury found that a feature in Word 2007, and the Office 2007 suite that includes Word, infringed a patent held by i4i, a Toronto software developer.

The feature in question governs how programs deal with a specialized data format called XML, short for extensible markup language. It's arguable, as Computerworld writer Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes, that i4i never should have received this patent in the first place. But there also seems to be solid evidence that Microsoft knew about i4i's work before adding these features to Word.

Either way, though, Microsoft is already moving to get out of the box the court's ruling put it in. In a statement issued earlier Tuesday, the company said it "had put the wheels in motion to remove this little-used feature" from Word before the Jan. 11 deadline. The statement added that Microsoft's upcoming Word 2010 and Office 2010 "do not contain the technology covered by the injunction."

So here's the upshot: Microsoft spends some time and money removing a feature most people don't use but doesn't have to stop selling its product, i4i gets a moment in the headlines and a decent payday, patent lawyers rack up billable hours, and most consumers never notice the difference.

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