Oh My Word €“ How Patently Stupid

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As an enthusiastic user of HTML since 1994, my first encounter with XML was something of a shock. It made me realise that the main reason I liked HTML was that it was a kind of dumbed-down version of SGML, the basis of markup languages for grownups, that made it perfectly suited to my limited programming skills.

XML was a revelation because it managed to combine the relative simplicity of HTML with the deep rigour of the totally impenetrable (to me) SGML.

One of the most important insights of SGML/XML was the distinction between structure and presentation, something that HTML tried to do, but failed to achieve because of extensions that were progressively added. XML separated structure and presentation more rigorously than HTML, leaving the presentation side to XSL – eXtensible Stylesheet Language – which was applied to the structured documents of XML code to produce neatly-formatted output, just as the more complicated Document Style Semantics and Specification Language (DSSSL) was applied to SGML files.

Among other things, this meant that you could reformat XML documents in different ways by applying different XSS files. In this respect, XML+XSL offers all the power of traditional word processors, but using a far more logical format for both content and presentation.

Against that background, and my deep respect for the elegance and power of XML+XSL, this is just gobsmacking:

United States Patent 7,571,169

Word-processing document stored in a single XML file that may be manipulated by applications that understand XML

Abstract

A word processor including a native XML file format is provided. The well formed XML file fully represents the word-processor document, and fully supports 100% of word-processor's rich formatting. There are no feature losses when saving the word-processor documents as XML.

A published XSD file defines all the rules behind the word-processor's XML file format. Hints may be provided within the XML associated files providing applications that understand XML a shortcut to understanding some of the features provided by the word-processor. The word-processing document is stored in a single XML file. Additionally, manipulation of word-processing documents may be done on computing devices that do not include the word-processor itself.

As you can see, this is essentially a patent on those core ideas of XML+XSL that impressed me all those years ago – indeed, on the even older ones of SGML+DSSSL. How the US PTO could possibly grant it for something whose core idea has been around for years is just beyond comprehension, and indicates the parlous state of the US patent system.

But what makes this case even more perturbing is that the patent has been granted to Microsoft. Which means that it has another pseudo-patent in its armoury that allows it to indulge in the usual FUD of free software “infringing” on its intellectual monopolies.

The fact that it is plainly an absurd patent that should never have been granted, and one, moreover, that (one hopes) would not be granted in the EU, doesn't really change anything: it now exists as a vague threat that Microsoft can invoke whenever it needs to.

The announcement of this pseudo-patent also puts Microsoft's call for “balance” in the context of open standards – which I discussed at some length recently – in a new light. Under the “balanced” approach, open standards could not only be patent-encumbered, but could also require non-zero payments for the use of any such patents. Microsoft might claim that US Patent 7,571,169 means that all XML-based word processor file formats – not just OOXML, but ODF too – must pay licensing fees to the company. Which would, of course, be impossible for programs like OpenOffice.org.

Perhaps the only thing restraining Microsoft from taking this course of action is the European Commission. The company has been noticeably conciliatory with respect to the latter recently. As well as the “ballot screen” for installing browsers on Windows-based PCs, it has also offered a similar approach for the default word processing formats [.doc]:

Beginning with the Office Customization Tool released with Office 14, an updated Office Customization Tool that will have a mandatory prompt to affirmatively select the default format for file saving for Microsoft’s Primary PC Productivity Applications will be made available to IT administrators in EEA with this select media kit.

The fact that the EU has already levied considerable fines on Microsoft, and made it clear that it will do so again if necessary is bound to concentrate the minds of those running the company considerably. For that – and for the EU's tough response – we can be grateful.

Unfortunately, the EU alone won't be able to sort things out here, because it seems that Microsoft is not the only company making absurd claims about owning intellectual monopolies on fundamental and obvious document technology. Here's another company, i4i, with another ridiculous patent covering similar matters:

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