Possible prior art for Microsoft smiley patent found

A Microsoft software patent application could be undermined by similarities with a 15-year old technology used in Usenet bulletin boards

A technology used to include images in Usenet postings could cause a recently published Microsoft patent application to be rejected.

The patent application, which covers selecting pixels to create an emoticon image, assigning a character sequence to these pixels and reconstructing the emoticon after transmission, was filed by Microsoft in January 2004 and published by the US Patent Office last week.

Several ZDNet UK readers pointed out over the weekend that X-faces, a technology that allows users to include images in Usenet news posts or in the headers of emails, appears to cover a similar technology. X-faces was developed around 15 years ago, with the first mailing list posting on the technology dated March 1991.

Patents are granted by the US Patent Office on condition that there is no prior art — that no-one has evidence for a similar technology that is older than the patent. If X-faces does constitute prior art, it could invalidate the Microsoft patent.

Randolf Richardson from Canadian consultancy Inter-Corporate Computer and Network Services, said in a TalkBack posting: "What Microsoft is patenting has already been in use for more than 15 years; just take a look at the unofficial X-faces NNTP [a USENET protocol] header that is used in newsgroups by users to include a small graphical image with their messages."

Another reader said that X-faces "could count as similar". And Robert Billing, a software engineer at UK consultancy Tanglewood Algorithms, also told ZDNet UK in an email that Microsoft's patent could be invalid as it resembles X-faces.

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

"We support the ability of anyone to submit prior art or input on a patent application with relevant authorities before a patent is issued. The public input mechanism is an important part of patent review process and it is available to anyone to use," said the spokesperson.

Information on how to submit information on potential prior art is available on the US Patent Office Web site.