The big news today is the patent dispute between software leviathan Microsoft and i4i, a small (30 employees) Toronto-based software developer. Two years ago i4i sued Microsoft for using its patented technology in Microsoft Word. Yesterday, a judge in Texas overseeing the case ordered Microsoft to stop selling Word in sixty days.
The patent in question is US 5,787,449, a "method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other." Basically, i4i invented a way to turn the information in any word processing document into a searchable database by mapping the metacodes, such as XML, in the document.
Although relatively few patents are cited in later patents, i4i's patent, which was issued in 1998, has been cited by a dozen patents assigned to IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Hitachi, Xerox and Netscape. This is a strong indication that i4i's technology is important.
It's interesting to note that computer-controlled text processing technology goes back more than 50 years. i4i's patent is classified in USPC Class 715, which covers data processing related to documents, interfaces and screen savers. About 20,000 patents and 20,000 published applications are classified in 715. The earliest patent classified in 715 is US 2,762,485, issued on Sept. 11, 1956, for an "automatic composing machine." The patent describes a system for printing text using a computer-controlled type-setting machine.
I'm the librarian for research services in the Engineering and Science Library at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. I've been working with patent information since 1991, including seven years at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I believe that the dissemination of patent information is a public good and should be promoted, especially in the education of science and engineering students.