It won’t come as news to many of you that I’m no fan of Microsoft — their long history of sub-standard software combined with economic domination and anticompetitive behaviour just doesn’t do it for me — but even I can’t bring myself to see this patent ruling as a good thing. Funny perhaps, and certainly karmicly appealing, but ultimately it does no-one but i4i any good whatsoever.
Software patents do nothing but limit companies’ ability to innovate and develop quality software, and this an ideal example of that. Microsoft Word is one of the few genuinely good products MS has ever produced, and their move to an XML file format in office 2007 was both a huge improvement in file size and processing speed, and an important step towards open-formats and interoperability from a company that had historically seen those things as an anathema. Obviously, it’s not perfect, and there were already open XML formats they could have adopted rather than rolling their own, but it’s a step in the right direction and it benefits every user of MS Word. We should not be discouraging Microsoft from making these kinds of change, yet that’s exactly what the recent East-Texas court ruling banning the sale of Word due to patent infringement does — and in the strongest possible way.
But it’s worse than that; not only does this discourage further good behaviour on the part of MS, but it directly impacts thousands of companies all over the world; Word is critical to the functioning of a huge number of businesses, and not being able to buy new licenses, even for a short while, could be a serious problem for some of them. If they’re left with less licenses than they have employees, then some of those employees might not be able to work, or have to do so on illegal software. In this financial climate, no company wants to have to make that choice. It’s true that there are alternatives (even free ones,) but anyone who thinks that’s a solution has never had much contact with corporate IT departments.
The whole situation seems like utter nonsense to me. Microsoft followed a totally obvious course of action, which benefited pretty much everyone, when it switched its file formats to XML, and yet because some other company had the idea first, they’re fined $277,000,000.00 in “damages” — someone will have to explain to me how Microsoft improving their office suite cost i4i $240 million — and the rest of us are prevented from buying the software we want to use.
In case anyone needed further proof that software patents (and patents in general) do more to harm to innovation and competition than they do to protect inventors, I think this is a prime example.