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Google, OpenDocs, Apple, Others Also in Danger from i4i

As I mentioned last night, as part of a patent infringement suit that was brought by i4i, a federal judge has issued an injunction preventing Microsoft from selling Word. But this isn't an issue just for Microsoft, and the implications could be wide spread, should i4i ultimately prevail.

Things are hardly set in stone yet, and the injunction would receive a stay should Microsoft appeal, and you can make book that it will. My colleague Michael Hickins thinks that the suit has real merit, and it does in the sense that i4i has won at the district court level. There is a legal presumption that an issued patent is valid. But according to highly experienced patent attorneys and litigators that I've spoken with, statistics of patent suit appeals outcomes alone suggests that Microsoft has a better than 50 percent chance that the verdict will be overturned. And the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will approach the case de novo, meaning as though it had not been heard before, so each side will have its chance to present its side anew.

If the CAFC affirms the lower court, then it may not just be Microsoft that is patently in trouble. The i4i patent is specifically about how software can handle documents containing metadata about their content, like XML or HTML, by dealing with the content and the metadata separately. It isn't explicitly or implicitly about word processing, and the use of XML in computers is rampant. But if Microsoft splits content from metadata, treating them separately, what makes you think that others don't? Here is an incredibly limited set of potential examples:

  • Patent expert and popular IP blogger Dennis Crouch, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, points out that OpenOffice could be in trouble as well. Although the development is decentralized, Sun/Oracle could be a potential target for a suit.
  • How about Google? Google Docs can import and use XML files. (Here's a thought: Microsoft buys i4i and then sues Google for infringement, again assuming that it splits the metadata and content and handles them separately.)
  • SAP has an XML connector, with XML messages translated into SAP internal calls, and that might make you think that there is some splitting of the content and metadata.
  • Apple supports or uses XML in a number of products, including Final Cut Pro, iWork, and ... wait for it ... iTunes.
  • HP makes heavy use of XML messaging.
Of course, there's no way to know immediately whether any of these companies, or the literally thousands of others that support and use XML-type data, handle metadata and text in such a way as to be in conflict with the i4i patent. But it sure seems likely that at least some do. I wouldn't be surprised to see a good many friend of the court briefs filed on behalf of Microsoft. Otherwise, this could dwarf classic patent troll claims.
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