Interesting E-Mail I received today...

Subject: Interesting E-Mail I received today...
From: john.markor@xxxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1999 14:41:30 -0500 (EST)
I received this in the mail today - does anyone know about this?


Volume 4, No. 19
February 4, 1999


In January, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Microsoft a patent that could have a major impact on Web standards. The patent, which broadly covers "the use of style sheets in an electronic publishing system," appears to
describe some of the key concepts used in the World Wide Web Consortium's Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and eXtensible Style Language (XSL) standards.

Specifically, it claims that the method of applying style sheets in documents rendered by the customer's computer (as is done by all Web browsers) is different from previous style sheet implementations.

We're not sure yet just how much of the CSS and XSL recommendations might be covered under Microsoft's patent or whether the patent will have any direct effect on how vendors and developers implement the standards. Thomas Reardon, the director of standards for Microsoft, wouldn't confirm that the patent applies specifically to the CSS or XSL standards, but he did admit that it "appears to overlap" with both W3C standards. Reardon defended Microsoft's ownership of the patent, however, stating that the company was
offering a "free and reciprocal" license to any company or group that uses style sheet technology in its products. "These are the most liberal licensing terms out there," Reardon noted, adding that it wasn't even clear whether other companies would need to enter a licensing agreement with Microsoft in order to use the technology.


Many things aren't yet clear about the patent, including why Microsoft failed to disclose to the W3C that it had filed it. Reardon stated that he wasn't even aware of the patent's existence while he served on the original CSS working group during the summer of 1995--the same time that Microsoft filed its patent application. The patent application does, however, include several references to W3C documents, including Hakon Lie's original proposal for CSS; this suggests that Microsoft was aware of the consortium's work on style sheets and that the company knew its patent
application was relevant to that work.

Also unclear is why Microsoft and the U.S. patent office ignored prior art on the subject of style sheets. The application of style sheets "on the
fly" as text is poured into a container dates back to the 1960s, when people first began to use batch pagination in conjunction with book, directory, and database publishing. It has been used ever since in
batch-pagination systems, such as Datalogics, Xyvision, Penta and Miles 33, all of which kept styles separate from tagged text and implemented styles with sample templates. The use of hierarchical (in the W3C's parlance, cascading) style sheets in an "electronic publishing system" was elegantly implemented in the early 1980s by Texet. Today, the term "electronic
publishing system" has changed meaning to refer to electronic delivery and page makeup, but the concepts of applying style sheets to tagged information remain the same. 

***Our Take***

Every vendor is entitled to protect its intellectual property to the fullest extent of the law. In the U.S, you can't patent software per se, but you can patent a process or method. As with any patent, Microsoft's
style sheet patent may be challenged in court. The Patent Office can also re-examine its earlier findings and rescind the patent award.

Reardon claims that this patent could actually protect Web standards by preventing other vendors from engaging in "standards terrorism" with intellectual property claims of their own. That comment strikes us as disingenuous: When participating in standards-setting bodies, the protocol is to reveal to other members any applicable patents your organization may claim so that you may be duly compensated should the group adopt your method as the standard. While we can't prove that Microsoft deliberately filed the patent in order to get a proprietary grip on the standard, the fact that it didn't reveal the filing during the CSS definition process shows bad faith toward the W3C and its process. If Microsoft really wants to protect Web standards, the company should immediately turn over its patent to the W3C and renounce all claims on the technology. Any other action, however charitable, casts serious doubts on Microsoft's commitment to any public standards process and endangers the W!
eb's success as an open platform.

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