Microsoft frowned at for smiley patent

A software patent filed by Microsoft in the US has been described as 'very dangerous'

Various organisations have criticised Microsoft for attempting to patent the creation of custom emoticons.

The patent application, which was published by the US Patent Office on Thursday, covers selecting pixels to create an emoticon image, assigning a character sequence to these pixels and reconstructing the emoticon after transmission.

Mark Taylor, the executive director of the Open Source Consortium, said on Friday said this is such a basic concept that he would not have been surprised to see it posted as a fictional patent on a technology site.

"I would have expected to see something like this suggested by one of our more immature community members as a joke on Slashdot, and probably would have chuckled at the absurdity of the notion. We now appear to be living in a world where even the most laughable paranoid fantasies about commercially controlling simple social concepts are being outdone in the real world by well-funded armies of lawyers on behalf of some of the most powerful companies on the planet," said Taylor.

He said the patent could be particularly problematic as it covers basic human communication. "Emoticons are a form of language, and a precedent allowing patenting of language constructs is very dangerous indeed," said Taylor.

Jonas Maebe, a spokesman for the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), said that such a patent could be used by Microsoft to prevent competitors from developing applications that compete with its MSN Messenger application.

"It is unfortunately quite clear such patents have nothing to do with protecting investments nor R&D, and only with obtaining exclusion rights which can help them [Microsoft] maintain their dominant position in the market," said Maebe.

Such patents are in contradiction to the original purpose of the patent system, according to Maebe's colleague at the FFII, Felipe Wersen.

"Patents were ultimately designed to benefit society — to have companies disclose things that benefit society which they wouldn't otherwise disclose. Who does this patent benefit?" said Wersen.

Although Microsoft does not appear to have filed this patent in Europe, it has filed a number of patents around natural language. These include a patent for segmenting text strings into tokens to allow further language processing.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that comments on its patent applications can be submitted to the US patent office.

"Microsoft receives dozens of patents every week. We support the ability of anyone to submit prior art or input on a patent application with relevant authorities before a patent is issued," said the spokesperson.

The Microsoft patent that organisations are concerned about is patent number 20050156873, which was filed in January 2004. The US Patent Office has not yet made a decision on whether to accept the patent application.