If your company uses MS Office (and who doesn't?) you may soon be deploying a patched version of Office so that Microsoft can get around a patent infringement suit that they lost. Seems that Guatemalan inventor Carlos Armando Amado was granted a patent in 1997 that covers some method that Access and Excel use to exchange data. Because Microsoft paid for $8.9 million for infringements between March 1997 and July 2003, any existing installations of Office 2003 can stand but new installations will need a patched version that no longer infringes.
This, of course, comes on the heals of the RIM court battles to keep the Blackberry on the market. When I visited Kim Cameron at Microsoft last year, I was impressed by a window sill full of patent trophies. When I mentioned them he said that Microsoft employees are encouraged patent anything they can, mostly as a defensive maneuver. Not a bad strategy when something deadly can rise up out of the mirky depths of the Patent Office and blow you to bits when you least expect it.
The whole patent process is really a big crap shoot, as far as I can tell. There's no great way to search for patents that your latest idea might be infringing. Even with professional patent searchers, you're just playing the odds. Not finding anything doesn't protect you in any way. You could still go out and build your company on a patent landmine, just waiting to explode and eat up your hard work as soon as you're successful. I think the courts ought to stop enforcing patents until Congress fixes the Patent Office and makes this whole process reasonable.