The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that Microsoft Corp. is not liable for using patented AT&T Inc. technology in copies of Windows running on computers outside the U.S.
The 7-1 ruling relieves the software giant from paying what could have been enormous damages, and it changes how the software industry looks at patent rights.
Microsoft had previously admitted to violating an AT&T patent for converting speech to computer code, which it incorporated into tens of millions of copies of its Windows operating system. It settled with AT&T in the U.S. but disputed that Windows software running on machines located overseas were covered by the patent.
At issue was part of a 1984 patent law, Section 271F, which prevents companies from shipping parts overseas to be assembled in a fashion that would infringe on a U.S. patent.
In front of the court in February, Microsoft argued that the master copies of Windows it ships overseas to other manufacturers are blueprints that do not violate patent laws.
AT&T, which filed the original case in federal court in New York in 2001, countered that Microsoft used the code in combination with other components in order to reap royalties from every copy of Windows sold.
In delivering the court's opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the "master disk" or "electronic transmission" Microsoft gives to foreign manufacturers does not violate the patent on its own, since that specific copy is not used on foreign-made computers.
"Instead, copies made abroad are used for installation," Ginsburg wrote. Because those copies are not supplied by Microsoft, the company does not supply the "components," she wrote.
A decision in favor of AT&T could have put the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office into the role of an arbiter of intellectual property worldwide and pushed software prices higher.
The Supreme Court was the last stop for Microsoft, which had lost a previous court battle. In July 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling that Microsoft was liable to pay fines for foreign sales of patent-infringing software even if it was originally created in the U.S.
But Microsoft had gained broad support in its defense efforts, including from the Bush administration and tech giants Amazon.com Inc., Intel Corp. and Yahoo Inc., and from industry groups such as the Business Software Alliance and the American Intellectual Property Law Association.
AT&T officials were unavailable for comment.