Announced today, Microsoft has apparently applied for the patent on “web feeds”. This is one of those announcements that make people roll their eyes up in their heads in puzzlement and disgust, in what I think in this case is perhaps justified anger. The issue in contention is basically that the Microsoft CDF format, which appeared very briefly in Internet Explorer largely in reaction to similar formats appearing in beta versions of Netscape. Both companies were attempting at that time to try to exploit the perception that the Internet would end up becoming the next TV (true, ironically, though by a very circuitous route that took a decade or more to make happen).
Most of the analysis I’ve seen on this would tend to push the idea that Microsoft is doing it to flush out patent trolls in preparation of the consumer rollout of Longhorn/Vista. It’s unlikely that they will succeed in actually gaining the patent - given the rather late date of the patent and the fact that there was in fact a fair amount of prior art even at that time mitigates against it, but I think there’s another facet here to the attempt that’s bothered me about XML-oriented patents for quite some time.
Neither CDF nor Netscape’s rival RSS formats were terribly successful at the time. The problem was only partially the technology - the Push revolution that was supposed to happen just didn’t seem to catch on with the deep pocket media corporations that had all of this content - they were leary about licensing out their content to Microsoft or Netscape, were concerned that the on-demand aspect of such syndication would end up spelling the end of their monopolies on content (especially video content) and they also worried that the power of being the controlling media gateways would shift away from the New York Times, CNNs and Disneys and into the hands of Microsoft or Netscape. After about a year of anemic content and expensive litigation, both companies basically walked away from RSS (Microsoft because of the anti-trust battles it was dealing with, Netscape because of the stranglehold that Microsoft had that brought about those anti-trust battles).
Enter Dave Winer and RadioLand. Winer basically looked at this rusting hulk of a standard sitting by the side of the road (and presumably chose the RSS standard not because of any inate superiority but because they were less likely to sue him) and set about using it as a way to start broadcasting user-generated columns, what would eventually become known as blogs. It was actually a bit of a stretch, because the format had never really been intended for use in the way that he used it, but what is significant here is that it had taken someone who WASN’T out to woo in big advertising bucks but just simply was looking to syndicate something that anyone could use in order to make the technology relevant and useful.
XML is a data/document format, and as such it is essentially the codification of a formal data structure using an open notation. RSS became a dominant language not because it had it had any inate feature to it that made it superior to other syndication formats (as the number of such variations or RSS can readily attest). It is essentially little more than a list of entries with a little bit of information describing who produced that information. It gained its power because there was a major need for ANY syndication format, and so people looking to syndicate their own content tended to gravitate to it because others gravitated to it.
Patents in most technologies have had a tendency to focus on ur-generators - who had the original concept that was able to take that concept to fruition. Such patents were rewarded typically because the cost, level of expertise in a given domain and ease of replication compared to those costs generally tended to work against the original inventors, and this provided a way of leveling the field. However, in software, this has tended to get turned on its head - creating a schema may take a few weeks, but most of that time is involved in hammering out agreements between the users of that schema, not in the time it takes to actually generate the schema files. (Indeed, as I’ve pointed out earlier in my book on XML Schema, a schema is in essence a contract, not a technology). In this case, the risk is taken not by the inventors, but by the popularizers, by the ones who recognize the value of a given XML format in a particular application and takes the time and effort to create such applications around those formats.
I worry that the more insidious danger in all of this is that on the off-chance that the Patent board DOES find in Microsoft’s favor, it provides another precedent for saying that schemas are themselves patentable, which I fear will have an extraordinarily negative impact upon those who use XML for anything. It would be worth it to hope that the patent board rejects this patent not on the basis of prior art, but upon the basis that XML cannot and should not be patentable. I’m not optimistic about this, mind you, but I think it would have as negative impact upon the XML-based web as the rush to IPO and the corresponding IP paranoia of companies had as a factor in the dot-com collapse - the free flow of information all but stopped in the late 1990s as programmers were essentially put under lock and key to keep them from giving away even the slightest competitive edge, and while the collapse itself was largely due to outside speculation, this lack of information flow certainly didn’t help.
I believe there was an eWeek piece that speculated that Microsoft was doing this in order to prove the technology unpatentable, but it seems a weak excuse at best - this particular era was reasonably well documented, the principle players are all known, and all have generally made their own wishes regarding RSS technologies well known. It would have been far better for Microsoft to clearly put those patents that it does explicitly hold into the public’s hands (in a manner similar to that done by IBM and Sun in recent years) rather than go this rather devious route to achieving the same end.
I see the patent applications as being a crap-shoot - a long shot which likely won’t pan out, but with a friendly (and generally overworked) patent office the chances are higher that it might, and if it does pan out it provides another leverage point on both the industry and the people who use the Internet to be forced into the Microsoft hegemony.