February 10, 2003 3:00 PM PST

.Net patent could stifle standards effort

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Microsoft is in the process of applying for a wide-ranging patent that covers a variety of functions related to its .Net initiative.

If approved as is, the patent would cover application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow actions related to accessing the network, handling Extensible Markup Language (XML), and managing data from multiple sources. APIs are the hooks in software that allow applications to work with another system.

Microsoft declined to elaborate on its plans for the patent, but intellectual property attorneys said that if it's granted, the company could dictate how, or whether, developers of software and devices can link to the .Net initiative.

"It looks pretty broad," said Jeff E. Schwartz, a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge. "It could be fairly significant."

The patent is one of several that Microsoft is applying for related to .Net, the company's Web services initiative. By submitting the application, which was filed last year and made public last week, Microsoft is following the lead of other major tech companies that have aggressively pursued patents over the years.

IBM is the most prolific patent generator, topping the list of corporate patent awards for the last 10 years. Big Blue landed 3,288 patents in 2002, bringing its total over the past 10 years to more than 22,000. Lately, the company has been focusing on patenting technology related to its computing-on-demand initiative.

Patents have become an increasingly common way for software makers to exert control over their intellectual property. One of the concerns about the proliferation of technology patents is the impact it could have on standards development. Some developers fear the trend will let a few patent holders dictate the direction of standards.

It's unclear what effect the Microsoft .Net patents would have on the standards process. Microsoft already has submitted many of the fundamentals of .Net to a standards body known as ECMA, formerly called the European Computer Manufacturers Association.

One person affiliated with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), another major standards body, said it's difficult to comment on the .Net patents without knowing Microsoft's specific plans. The W3C is in the process of developing a policy that would let the organization include patented technology in its standards as long as companies agree to provide the technology royalty-free. The person, who asked not to be identified, said Microsoft has agreed to such terms in the past.

IBM said last year that it would not charge royalties on patented technology that is part of an e-commerce Web standard.

More and more, the patent debate is pitting companies like IBM and Microsoft--which are looking to patents to protect and recoup the millions of dollars they spend developing products--against members of the open-source and free software movements, which say the patent process stifles innovation by covering processes that are common on the Web.

People like Free Software Foundation guru Richard Stallman have urged boycotts of companies that aggressively enforce patents.

Meanwhile, Bruce Perens, a consultant and leader of the open-source movement, worries that Microsoft's patents could shut out alternative software development. "Microsoft is being careful to patent every aspect of APIs related to .Net," he said. "It's preventing the open-source community from being involved in this area."

Open-source developers are already hard at work trying to build open-source implementations of .Net. One of them, the Mono Project, provides many of the same APIs as .Net. When the Mono Project is completed next year, developers will be able to build .Net applications that run on Linux and Unix.

 

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