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Microsoft Faces Damages Over NetMeeting Patent

Microsoft faces $62.3 million in damages after a jury's decision that the software giant willfully infringed on a patent held by printing software player Imagexpo, LLC, in its NetMeeting whiteboarding feature.

The lawsuit, brought against Microsoft in Oct. 2002 in federal court in Richmond, Va., stemmed from charges that the company infringed on a patent covering real-time conferencing. The patent is held by Imagexpo, a subsidiary of industrial and flow technology concern SPX Corporation that develops remote softproofing and annotation software for the printing industry.

That software centers around a tool that enables multi-person conferences for the purpose of reviewing and editing prepress images. In its lawsuit, Imagexpo claimed that the whiteboarding feature in Windows NetMeeting infringed on the patent protecting that tool.

Microsoft spokespeople maintained the company had independently developed the technology underlying NetMeeting, a chat and collaboration tool that has been a part of Microsoft Windows for years.

"While we are disappointed with the jury's verdict, we continue to stand firm in our belief that there was no infringement of any kind on the Imagexpo patent, and that the technologies in question are indeed different," said Microsoft spokesperson Stacy Drake. "As an intellectual property company that has invested heavily in research and development, we take patent infringement very seriously and respect the intellectual property rights of others."

Despite the jury's findings, both sides say additional, unspecified legal issues need to be decided before damages are actually awarded -- or before Microsoft decided to file an appeal.

Those lingering issues aside, it's still unclear what the ramifications of the suit will be. Imagexpo has not yet asked for an injunction, while Microsoft said it has, for some time, planned to phase out NetMeeting in favor of more modern technology.

Beginning in 2001, whiteboarding features have been built into the Windows operating system, in connection with its Windows Messenger instant messaging client. More recently, Microsoft debuted Office Live Meeting 2003, an offering based on its January acquisition of PlaceWare.

"Since purchasing PlaceWare, we have decided to focus our real-time collaboration efforts around that technology," she said. NetMeeting now "doesn't ship in Service Packs, and is not downloadable ... so we're not sure what [Imagexpo] will do, since we're retiring it anyway."

Spokespeople from SPX and Imagexpo did not return requests for comment by press time.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.