Network: Web Design, Patent case of paranoia

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The Independent Culture
ON 12 January, Microsoft was granted US Patent Number 5,860,073. This is hardly surprising, since most companies of Microsoft's size receive hundreds or even thousands of patents from the US government each year. However, this particular patent, entitled "Style sheets for publishing system(s)", covers "the use of style sheets in an electronic publishing system". Sound familiar?

The "inventors" listed in this patent claim to have developed a system where by "text, or other media such as graphics, is poured into the display region" at which time, style sheets - defined as "a collection of formatting information, such as fonts and tabs" - are applied. This patent seems to overlap concepts laid out in the World Wide Web Consortium's (www.w3c.org) specifications of Cascading Style Sheets (www.independent.co.uk/net/ 980407ne/story8.html) and the Extensible Style Language (XSL), in development at least since 1994.

So, what does this mean? It means that Microsoft can now claim as its intellectual property several of the key concepts that make Web browser technology possible. Theoretically, if you want to use these technologies - or any technology based on them - you will now need to sign a licensing agreement with Microsoft. Imagine a world where every website using CSS, DHTML, and XSL have to be Microsoft certified.

OK, it may never get that bad, we hope. It has been reported that Microsoft will offer "free and reciprocal" licensing agreements to anyone wishing to use "their" technology, adding that it is not even clear whether a licence will be necessary.

Even Netscape is "not terribly concerned about it at this point in time", and rightly so. A quick analysis of the patent shows that it has two major flaws, which the W3C and the Web Standards Project (www.wsp.com) have already been quick to point out "the existence of prior art", referring to the fact that style sheets were proposed with the first Web browsers coming out of CERN laboratories in 1994. In fact, the concept of style sheets has been around since the Sixties when they were used for print publications. At best, Microsoft is a Johnny-come-lately to the concept.

The W3C's own licensing insures that the standards developed under its banner are universally available and royalty free. Since the W3C first developed the concept of style sheets, its license should hold precedence. Microsoft had representatives on the committees that created these standards and their own patent makes reference to documents produced by the W3C regarding CSS, so it seems highly improbable that this patent would stand up to much scrutiny.

In fact, George Olsen of the WSP (www.independent.co.uk /net/ 980928ne/story7.html) questions whether the patent should have been granted in the first place, "because [there] are a number of prior examples of similar technology, including the original proposal for CSS". Not only that, but it is assumed that any organisation - Microsoft included - with representatives in the W3C will detail any current or pending patents that might impact the W3C standards under consideration, something this patent most certainly did. Yet the first the W3C heard of the patent was on 4 February when knowledge of the patent was first made publicly available.

The question is not whether the patent will stand the test of time - most people I have talked to in the Web design community agree that it won't. The question is whether it should have ever even been applied for in the first place and what this patent says about Microsoft.

The best thing that I can say about this situation is that it simply betrays an extreme divergence between the philosophies of the Microsoft Corporation and the philosophies that have created and nourished the World Wide Web since its creation. The Web has always been based on free and open standards available to any party for use without the need of legal contracts or obligations. On the other hand, Microsoft is the ultimate libertarian corporation, which not only believes that every thing should be owned, but that every idea is a commodity and should be owned by somebody - that somebody preferably being Microsoft.

This patent simply reflects upon the paranoid temperament that Microsoft has at its very core. It was reported that Microsoft filed this patent to prevent others companies from forcing consumers into using proprietary software. Microsoft wants to make sure that you are protected from having to use proprietary software - that's a bit rich.

Microsoft should do the right thing. Turn its patent over to the W3C with no strings attached and allow the Web standards body to administer Web standards.

You can e-mail comments or queries to Jason at indy_webdesign @mindspring.com

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