Like Microsoft or loathe it, it's clear that the recent ban against Word being sold because of a potential patent infringement represents everything bad about patent law. The patent that Microsoft is said to infringe upon is one that should never have been issued, and is the kind that hurts the spread of new technologies.
The injunction was issued by Judge Leonard Davis, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. It "prohibits Microsoft from selling or importing to the United States any Microsoft Word products that have the capability of opening .XML, .DOCX or DOCM files (XML files) containing custom XML." The ban goes into effect on October 12.
The reason? Back in May, the same court ruled that Microsoft had infringed upon the company i4i's patent# 5787449, which is "A system and method for the separate manipulation of the architecture and content of a document, particularly for data representation and transformations."
It's a clear example of a patent that should never have been issued because the technology it describes is far too broad, and covers far too much ground. My blogging compatriot Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols summed it up best, when he wrote:
To me, the i4i patent reads like a classic, over-reaching patent that covers prior art, which should have prevented it from ever becoming a patent. It's these kinds of patents, and courts like the Eastern District of Texas, which approve these IP patent lawsuits almost as a reflex, which harms everyone in the technology business.
Steven is right on target. The first culprit is the patent office, which approves patents that are far too broad. The second group of culprits are patent lawyers, who make a living filing suits to protect the too-broad patents. And the third group of culprits are judges such as Judge Leonard Davis.
A simple first solution to the problem might be to banish patent lawyers for a time (and the judges who enable them), and let common sense prevail. Now that might be an idea worth patenting.