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Microsoft Awarded Style Sheet Patent

From: James Allan <allan_jm@tsb1.tsbvi.edu>
Date: Mon, 08 Feb 1999 09:33:14 -0600
To: WAI Interest Group <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Message-id: <000101be5378$57bc6d20$0100007f@localhost>
Got this from Web Review Update
Microsoft Awarded Style Sheet Patent
Feb. 5, 1999

In January, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Microsoft a patent that could
have a major impact on Web standards. The patent, which broadly covers "the
use of style sheets in an electronic publishing system," appears to describe
some of the key concepts used in the World Wide Web Consortium's Cascading
Style Sheets (CSS) and eXtensible Style Language (XSL) standards.
Specifically, it claims that the method of applying style sheets in
documents rendered by the customer's computer (as is done by all Web
browsers) is different from previous style sheet implementations.

We're not sure yet just how much of the CSS and XSL recommendations might be
covered under Microsoft's patent or whether the patent will have any direct
effect on how vendors and developers implement the standards. Thomas
Reardon, the director of standards for Microsoft, wouldn't confirm that the
patent applies specifically to the CSS or XSL standards, but he did admit
that it "appears to overlap" with both W3C standards. Reardon defended
Microsoft's ownership of the patent, however, stating that the company was
offering a "free and reciprocal" license to any company or group that uses
style sheet technology in its products. "These are the most liberal
licensing terms out there," Reardon noted, adding that it wasn't even clear
whether other companies would need to enter a licensing agreement with
Microsoft in order to use the technology.

Many things aren't yet clear about the patent, including why Microsoft
failed to disclose to the W3C that it had filed it. Reardon stated that he
wasn't even aware of the patent's existence while he served on the original
CSS working group during the summer of 1995--the same time that Microsoft
filed its patent application. The patent application does, however, include
several references to W3C documents, including Hakon Lie's original proposal
for CSS; this suggests that Microsoft was aware of the consortium's work on
style sheets and that the company knew its patent application was relevant
to that work.

Also unclear is why Microsoft and the U.S. patent office ignored prior art
on the subject of style sheets. The application of style sheets "on the fly"
as text is poured into a container dates back to the 1960s, when people
first began to use batch pagination in conjunction with book, directory, and
database publishing. It has been used ever since in batch-pagination
systems, such as Datalogics, Xyvision, Penta and Miles 33, all of which kept
styles separate from tagged text and implemented styles with sample
templates. The use of hierarchical (in the W3C's parlance, cascading) style
sheets in an "electronic publishing system" was elegantly implemented in the
early 1980s by Texet. Today, the term "electronic publishing system" has
changed meaning to refer to electronic delivery and page makeup, but the
concepts of applying style sheets to tagged information remain the same.

Our Take
Every vendor is entitled to protect its intellectual property to the fullest
extent of the law. In the U.S., you can't patent software per se, but you
can patent a process or method. As with any patent, Microsoft's style sheet
patent may be challenged in court. The Patent Office can also re-examine its
earlier findings and rescind the patent award.

Reardon claims that this patent could actually protect Web standards by
preventing other vendors from engaging in "standards terrorism" with
intellectual property claims of their own. That comment strikes us as
disingenuous: When participating in standards-setting bodies, the protocol
is to reveal to other members any applicable patents your organization may
claim so that you may be duly compensated should the group adopt your method
as the standard. While we can't prove that Microsoft deliberately filed the
patent in order to get a proprietary grip on the standard, the fact that it
didn't reveal the filing during the CSS definition process shows bad faith
toward the W3C and its process. If Microsoft really wants to protect Web
standards, the company should immediately turn over its patent to the W3C
and renounce all claims on the technology. Any other action, however
charitable, casts serious doubts on Microsoft's commitment to any public
standards process and endangers the Web's success as an open platform.

Jim Allan, Statewide Technical Support Specialist
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
1100 W. 45th St., Austin, Texas 78756
voice 512.206.9315    fax: 512.206.9453  http://www.tsbvi.edu/
"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." McLuhan, 1964
Received on Monday, 8 February 1999 13:20:06 UTC

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