PUBPAT to Microsoft: Not on Our Watch
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The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a New York City-based non-profit dedicated to busting overly broad patents, expanded its Microsoft Patent Watch on Monday. The initiative monitors and responds to Redmond's aggressive intellectual licensing push.
"It's to the benefit of the community and individual companies to get a picture of what Microsoft is doing," said Daniel Ravicher, PUBPAT's executive director.
He said his organization has been on Microsoft's intellectual property (IP) patrol for several months, but a rising number of tips and complaints about Redmond's practices spurred the launch.
"We've received numerous tips, unsolicited tips, made by several companies who are all being approached [in] what came quickly to be recognized as a similar pattern," he said.
According to Ravicher, Microsoft tries to get companies to agree to not disclose the terms of patent licenses. While this is a common tactic in business negotiations of all kinds, Ravicher said that Microsoft's market dominance gives it exceptional clout and the ability to isolate smaller companies.
PUBPAT hopes that companies will refuse Microsoft's requests for confidentiality, and instead share information about the negotiations that can be used by others. Ravicher said none of the companies that complained to PUBPAT had broken non-disclosure agreements with Microsoft.
The organization already is reviewing and analyzing Microsoft's extensive patent portfolio to prepare for and respond to any potential for public harm caused by its assertion.
In June, it got the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to agree to review Microsoft's key patent on the FAT file system. However, the USPTO's review is only the first step in what could be a very long process. If the patent were revoked, Microsoft could appeal to the USPTO and, if unsuccessful, to the federal courts.
The FAT file system technology lets users keep track of and transfer data among different devices, including computers and flash memory cards. It's used by many operating systems, including Linux. Last year, Microsoft said it would expand licensing of its IP portfolio and began with licensing requests for FAT.
PUBPAT's petition to the USPTO included four examples of prior art, which were enough to trigger the review and revocation. But the patent office threw out one of PUBPAT's key complaints: that the patent "stands as a potential impediment to the development and use of free software, because free software users are denied the ability to interchange media with machines or devices running Microsoft-owned or licensed software."
By law, the potential for public harm is not a valid consideration in the patent process. And that, said Ravicher, is the problem.
"The patent process is not about the public good, and that's something we try to highlight," Ravicher said. "When they reject those grounds, that honest reaction and feedback is almost a poster child for one of the faults of the patent system." Among PUBPAT's strategic goals, he said, is to reform the entire system.
"I agree with the concept of patents," he said. "In theory, it has a lot of academic merit. But ... the way it's ignored, almost every facet of the public interest allows significant public harm to be caused."