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8/13/2009
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Microsoft Word Ban Sparked By 4-Page Complaint

Obscure Toronto firm i4i launched first strike against software giant back in 2007.

Unlike the lengthy tomes that often kick start major lawsuits, the formal legal complaint that ultimately led a judge to impose a ban on U.S. sales of Microsoft Word--effective in 60 days--runs just four pages.

At its heart is an allegation that Word and other Microsoft technologies, including Windows Vista and .NET Framework, violate an obscure patent that governs how computer programs manipulate certain information within a document.

Judge Leonard Davis, of U.S. District Court for Eastern Texas, on Tuesday ruled that Word—but not Vista and .Net—does indeed step on U.S. patent 5,787,449, which describes a "Method and System for Manipulating the Architecture and the Content of a Document Separately from Each Other," according to court records.

The patent is held by an equally obscure tech firm based in Toronto—i4i, Inc. The company describes itself as a developer of "collaborative content solutions."

In its complaint, originally filed March 6, 2007, i4i claimed Microsoft infringed its patent "by making, using, selling, offering to sell, and/or importing in or into the United States, without authority, Word 2003, Word 2007, .NET Framework, and Windows Vista."

Davis in his ruling said Microsoft Word had indeed "unlawfully infringed" on i4i's patent. With that, he enjoined Redmond from selling or supporting new copies of Word 2003 and Word 2007 in the U.S. The ban would take effect in mid-October. Davis also ordered Microsoft to pay i4i more than $240 million in damages and costs.

Microsoft, not surprisingly, said it strongly disagrees with Davis' ruling and plans to appeal the order.

Davis left an out for Microsoft. He noted that the infringing aspect of Word is its ability to open and read documents that contain custom XML—a form of the Extensible Markup Language forma that businesses create to forge links between their back office data and PC applications like Word.

Davis said any version of Word that opens documents in plain text only, or which strips a document of custom XML through a process known as a transform, would be free from his order. That leaves the door open for Microsoft to issue a patch that alters Word's functionality in such a way as to circumvent the ban.

The company took a similar tack with Vista after European regulators found that the bundling of the operating system with Windows Media Player violated competition rules. Microsoft in response created a version of Vista for sale on the Continent that does not include WMP.

A third option for Microsoft is to settle the case with i4i by purchasing rights to its technology.

What's not in doubt is that the stakes are high for Redmond. Microsoft Office, which includes Word, accounted for more than $3 billion in worldwide sales in Microsoft's most recent fiscal year. So any prolonged ban on Microsoft Word sales could severely impact the company's top line.

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