More discussion of Microsoft's 6,898,604 on XML serialization
..there's also some question as to Microsoft's ability to enforce the licensing terms given the validity, or lack thereof, of the intellectual property rights that Microsoft claims to have to the technology. The eWeek story goes on to discuss how the Public Patent Foundation's executive director Dan Ravicher picked apart the legal language that Microsoft attached to the XML formats and how it's unclear as to what patents, or pending patents, are the lynchpins to the license's enforceability. Said Ravicher, according to the story, "If they had any applicable patents, they'd most assuredly tell people what those patents are. I can't see that they have done that. So, all they've said is that they may have patents and, if they do, these are the terms under which they'll license them to you. While it is true the terms of such a license are GPL-incompatible, there is no need to comply with them until we are certain they have something that must be licensed."
When asked about the specific intellectual property that applies to Office's XML file formats, a Microsoft spokesperson told me via e-mail: "Microsoft does not comment on the scope of patent applications or patents. The language of the patent application speaks for itself. Others are free to summarize or characterize the contents if they wish. Generally, however, like other major technology innovators, Microsoft routinely applies to obtain patents on its inventions. A patent establishes ownership of an invention and is only granted if government patent examiners conclude that it is a true innovation compared with existing technology. While Microsoft has committed to a royalty-free license to create and distribute programs that can read and write the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas, if it doesn't take the responsible step of patenting its inventions, then someone else will likely do so. The company wants to avoid this unnecessary confusion for its customers."
Elsewhere around the Net, one of Microsoft's newer patents — one that's relevant to XML — is getting vetted quite aggressively in an attempt to demonstrate that at least some of the company's intellectual property rights may be baseless. In his blog, Sun director of Web technologies Tim Bray (also, the co-inventor of XML) replays an imaginary conversation that Microsoft might consider to be the basis of an invention, but that Bray warns is not. The implication of the mock conversation is that the core techniques behind Microsoft's patent on XML serialization and deserialization (US Patent no. 6,898,604) were already widely known (in other words, prior art existed) and that complementing it annotations is too simple and frivolous of an improvement to warrant new consideration by a patent body. But, if that's not enough of a prior art objection, Bray also excerpts a newsletter from Greg Aharonian of bustpatents.com, who unearthed what he considers to be significant prior art — prior art that already existed at the time Microsoft originally filed for the patent in June 2001.
Meanwhile, as a reminder, Microsoft has had several recent flirtations with the open source community, including one with Open Source Initiative acting president Michael Tiemann and another with Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik. Between those meetings, the spotlight that's being placed on Microsoft's claim to openness as well as to certain intellectual property, and the fact that the company has already released 17 different code-bases (perhaps more by now) under a range of licenses that are not purely proprietary (everything from "shared-source" to OSI-certified open source), could Microsoft just be midway through the throes of a painful transition that it must make to survive in a fully open world?
Of US 6,898,604 (filed June 29, 2001), the first claim recites:
A method for serializing an object instance to a serial format, the method comprising steps of:
generating a mapping between an arbitrary annotated source code file and a schema, the arbitrary annotated source code file containing at least one programming type that describes a shape of an object instance and the schema describing a format of a document having a serial format, the mapping defining a correspondence between the shape of the object instance and the format of the document having the serial format; and
converting an object instance corresponding to the arbitrary annotated source code to the serial format by converting at least one of a public property, a public field and a method parameter of the object instance to a document having the serial format based on the mapping.
Issued May 24, 2005, the patent has not been cited as of June 14, 2005.