Microsoft Awarded Style Sheet Patent

Date:     Thu, 4 Feb 1999 14:41:30 -0500 (EST)
Subject:  Interesting E-Mail I received today...

I received this in the mail today - does anyone know about this?


Volume 4, No. 19
February 4, 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 W!
eb's success as an open platform.

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