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So, Could Microsoft Ever "Own" XML?

Redmond giant granted United States patent 6,687,897 for "XML script automation" - what XML-related patents may be next?

Last month,  Microsoft applied for a patent to cover a word-processing document stored in a single XML file. That was in Europe and New Zealand.

"The present invention," it said in its accompanying Summary submitted to the European Patent Office,  "is directed at providing a word-processing document in a native XML file format that may be understood by an application that understands XML, or to enable another application or service to create a rich document in XML so that the word-processing application can open it as if it was one of its own documents."

At LinuxWorld we speculated whether this was  "either a preemptive move against IBM's plan to migrate to Linux on the desktop, a direct challenge to software vendors who want to interoperate with Word through XML, or just a more general confirmation that it is worried about Open Source." While the XML standard itself remains royalty free, Microsoft seemed intent, we noted, on seeking patent protection for as many specific software implementations that incorporate elements of XML as it could.

But now comes the news that, right here in the United States, Microsoft has been granted US patent 6,687,897 - filed as long ago as December 2000, it should be noted - for "XML script automation." In other words, it involves "systems, methods and data structures for encompassing scripts written in one or more scripting languages in a single file."

"This does not, in any way, change the royalty-free nature of the XML standard itself," a spokesman for the Redmond software giant said yesterday. 

What does this mean for the rest of us?  Well, it is not a patent on XML itself, but on the method of encompassing multiple scripts inside an XML file. The scripts can be all written in the same language or different languages.

One developer comments: "I think this may be used to change the way ASP works. It will allow you to use C# and javascript in one file and depending on the system configuration, it selects the correct script to run."

Another says: "We're all moving to xml for many obvious reasons, and Microsoft has patented one of them. We've all been adding multiple scripts to our HTML files for years, and there have been pain points. One promise of XML is to have more easily parsed data and meta-data due to the ability to define tags and the use of hierarchical tags instead of a fixed list of attributes. Every HTML file I've ever written falls into this classification where XML is desired, and this includes my javascript code. We've all been doing this for years within HTML. What Microsoft has patented is an obvious extension of current industry practices to anyone skilled in the art, and the patent should not have been granted."

Technoskeptics worry that, while Microsoft is not trying to patent XML itself,  it might over time seek to patent many aspects and possible uses of XML that there will be no practical method to use XML in a meaningful way without infringing a Microsoft patent.

We will follow the discussions that will no doubt follow in online communities like XML-DEV, and keep LinuxWorld readers posted on what's being said by those in the know about XML and patents.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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