'Custom XML' the key to patent suit over Microsoft Word

'Custom XML' the key to patent suit over Microsoft Word

Summary: The short version of the story so many are talking about today: A Texas judge is barring Microsoft from selling Microsoft Word due to alleged patent infringement and fining the Redmondians multiple millions as part of the case. But most synopses of the case seem to be omitting a key part of the ruling: the concept of "Custom XML."

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The short version of the story so many are talking about today: A Texas judge is barring Microsoft from selling Microsoft Word due to alleged patent infringement and fining the Redmondians multiple millions as part of the case.

But most synopses of the case seem to be omitting a key part of the ruling: the concept of "Custom XML."

According to the press release from the lawyers for plaintiff i4i:

"Today's permanent injunction prohibits Microsoft from selling or importing to the United States any Microsoft Word products that have the capability of opening .XML, .DOCX or DOCM files (XML files) containing custom XML."

What is "Custom XML"? Is it a (supposedly) unremovable component of Office (like Internet Explorer is of Windows)?

The first link I found when searching was from the "OOXML is defective by design" site. The 2008 post was born from the politics that continue to swirl around the Office Open XML (OOXML) vs. Open Document Format (ODF) debate. But it still contains some useful information.

First, according to this post, Custom XML is a Word-only thing. It's not part of Excel, PowerPoint or any other Office app.

Post author Stephane Rodriguez links to a couple of Microsoft-provided definitions of Custom XML.

The first, from Office Program Manager Brian Jones, dates back to 2005:

"Custom XML is the support for custom defined schemas. It's that support that allows you truly integrate your documents with business processes and business data. You can define your data using XML Schema syntax, and then you can use that data in your Office documents. By opening up our formats with our reference schemas, and supporting your custom defined schemas, you get true interoperability of your documents."

I did some more searching. I found a 2008 retort to Rodriguez's post that also attempts to define Custom XML. From .Net evangelist Wouter van Vugt:

Custom XML markup "is about embedding custom XML defined outside of Open XML to support solution which aim to structure a document using business semantics, not only using formatting. A great advance since you want to get to the data, and not by saying that the customer name is the 3rd paragraph. The issue is that you cannot just allow any arbitrary XML to be stored in the WordprocessingML package. This would become application specific, and it would break validation since all XML is valid. Not a great idea."

I've seen a couple of bloggers claiming that a prohibition against Custom XML would affect customers working with custom Office templates. From these definitions, it's obvious we're not talking about the simple cover-letter or newsletter formatter that many think of when they hear "template."

Do you expect Microsoft to win its appeal of this case, to settle with i4i? (I'm betting on a settlement, myself.) Do you believe Microsoft could/would "remove" the allegedly infringing Custom XML technology in some way? I'm also still interested in getting more of a layperson's definition of Custom XML -- anyone?

Update: My ZDNet blogging colleague Zack Whittaker managed to get an interesting comment on the case. It sounds like there might be a Plan B, via which Microsoft could disable the Custom XML feature if the company's legal appeal fails. It sounds like Microsoft is not anticipating the case to delay the release of Office 2010. But there is talk of a re-release of Word 2007 with a patch, which the company already has developed, that will disable the Custom XML functionality upon installation.

The "official" Microsoft Legal comment on all this is the much less-detailed one from Microsoft spokesperson Kevin Kutz: "We are disappointed by the court's ruling. We believe the evidence clearly demonstrated that we do not infringe and that the i4i patent is invalid. We will appeal the verdict."

Topics: Software Development, Microsoft, Software

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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54 comments
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  • Well...

    It's kind of odd/fun/amusing that Microsoft after doing its big OOXML song and dance is being hoist on its own petard by a patent on custom XML.

    I do wonder if Microsoft in stumping up OOXML did much at all in the way of diligence with regard to patents on custom XML. Because it seems that their attempt to get proprietary stuff in an "open standard" has come back to haunt them.

    Ah well, maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm not. I'm just in too much after golf pain to care much.
    zkiwi
  • RE: 'Custom XML' the key to patent suit over Microsoft Word

    Microsoft has a very strong chance of winning the appeal once they prove how inane this whole thing is and the fines were overly priced. Basically everyone is going to back Microsoft because they need them to win against i4i. If they don't then the disastrous results will trickle down into other companies and software.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Past history ...

      Of your predicting what courts will do now almost guarantee that i4i will prevail.
      zkiwi
      • Wrong

        and for your sake you better hope they don't otherwise all of your favorite software will suffer the same as Microsoft. You need for Microsoft to win the appeal.
        Loverock Davidson
        • Yes, you are wrong...

          Or did you entirely miss the two bits...

          1) Your zero success with court's rulings.
          2) The whole bit about it's not about XML, but about Microsoft's "custom XML"

          Never mind, there's still hope for you. Buy a Mac, wipe Windows off your PC and install at least one flavour of Linux, and to wrap it all up, get an iPhone!
          zkiwi
          • Are you crazy????

            You'll get him fired.
            Viva la crank dodo
          • Except that...

            from what I read in the patent filing itself... their patent makes no mention of custom XML.

            What the patent actually describes is the method for which files are stored with structure and content seperately. This would include all XML/XML schema and CSS/HTML combinations.
            ShadowGIATL
          • Please...

            PLEASE DO NOT PUT THIS IN THE HANDS OF SOME TEXAS JUDGE!
            cdubb
          • Why not?

            Note that it's a federal court, not a Texas court. So why not Texas?
            zkiwi
          • If you have to ask that...

            If you have to ask that then you need to get out of the virtual world and spend some time observing real life.
            joeller
          • You do know that...

            Courts and their decisions are evaluated, and that there is also such a thing as an appeal?

            That and you seem to imagine that this court is a "hang them, find them guilty and have a quick trial" (in that order) court. If it was, then it's odd that the RIAA and Microsoft, IBM etc don't use it to their advantage.
            zkiwi
  • This is the same judge and district...

    ... that has ruled on all sorts of BS patent suits in recent years.

    Everyone's feelings on OOXML are irrelevant... this is what happens when a Toronto company is allowed to file a lawsuit against a Washington company in the state of Texas in the district of a corrupt judge.
    GoodThings2Life
    • And they won!

      Maybe it's better just to let MS do what ever they want, regardless of any
      protection a small, 30 employee company, believes they have.

      It's not only a slap on MS's wrist - they know their lawyers will get them
      out of it. I actually doubt if MS will be embarrassed.

      Pity.
      Ken_z
  • Donald Knuth: Mathematical Ideas, or Algorithms, Should Not Be Patented

    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20090603224807259

    Dietrich®
  • custom xml definition

    If you can open the doc with a M$ xml reader and not with a third party xml reader, than it is custom (a.k.a. 'enhanced' by M$).
    This is great because M$ is finally paying for not using open standards.
    Linux Geek
    • Linux Geek your argument is fallicious

      There is nothing illegal about not adopting standards unless they are Laws requiring them. No law on the books requires Microsoft to use open standards in Word. So your comments are moot.
      Djblois
      • Unless...

        someone like i4i patents the concept of using XML that deviates from the standard for XML. In that case everyone that does something with XML that is not part of the standard is by definition infringing on the patent.

        <i>No law on the books requires Microsoft to use open standards in Word.</i>
        No law on the books permits MS to use another company's patent without recompense either.

        Don't think for a moment that I think the patent is worth a darn. I think software patents are entirely bogus. But if MS wants to claim that software patents are valid, it's going to bite them from time to time.
        Letophoro
      • you did not get

        [i]There is nothing illegal about not adopting standards unless they are Laws requiring them. No law on the books requires Microsoft to use open standards in Word. [/i]
        Yeah,... there are no laws, but there are patents to prevent it. ;)
        Linux Geek
      • Cannot have a patent on any modifications

        However, you cannot create a patent on an existing technology (that you do not have a patent on) saying I have the rights to all modifications to this technology therefore if they do not have a Patent On XML itself than they cannot make this claim.
        Djblois
        • Their claim...

          is actually on the method of how XML is created, according to the patent abstract I saw.

          "The method and system for storing architecture and content as seperate files."

          That includes XML and CSS at least. Seems a bit broad in my opinion. MS should deffinately appeal to a lesser biased court... if they can find one.
          ShadowGIATL