Just when you thought you'd seen it all, Microsoft has apparently applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a patent on the Really Simple Syndication protocol (RSS). The blogosphere hasn't worked itself up into a tizzy quite yet. Although Dave Winer has already posted a Tale of Corporate Atrocity, Techmeme still lists the item well below "the fold" and it hasn't shown up in any of Digg's top or upcoming lists (as best as I can tell). Technorati -- a service that would probably cease to be if Microsoft started charging royalties on every execution of RSS -- has no reflection of the news item on its home page either.
Some of what's been written so far indicates that Microsoft has actually been awarded the patent. But the USPTO link that everyone seems to be using is to the application text and doesn't indicate whether the patent has yet to be awarded or not (more digging please). A patent on RSS would likely result in an infringement by Atom (another XML-based syndication format) and given the rigors of standard setting that Atom has been through, I can't help but think that, at the end of the day, there's enough prior art to make neither patentable.
If there's a patent on file for RSS, then maybe it's this one awarded just days ago to Biap Systems Inc. But so far, a cursory search (do your own) of the USPTO's patent database does not reveal Microsoft's application as being approved as of yet. The application was filed last year and, as can be seen from the Biap patent, it takes about four or five years before a patent is awarded by the USPTO. Via instant messenger, I pinged Tim Bray who was deeply involved in Atom. Said Bray:
It will be interesting to see if the USPTO shows any evidence of having overcome the problems that resulted in their track record of obliviousness to prior art.
I've checked in with Dave Winer who routinely gets the most credit for bringing RSS to life and turning it into the force of the Net that it is and am waiting to hear back. I'll follow up if I hear from him. In mean time, it would not be good news for a single company to be in control of RSS.