It was interesting to watch the evolution of the Microsoft RSS patent story last week.
After reading about the patent applications on Dave Winer's blog, I read through them and posted my thoughts (in a nutshell, I disagreed with the inventions claimed in the applications, but given all the patent lawsuits Microsoft has experienced, I understood why they filed them). By the time I uploaded my post, several bloggers were claiming that Microsoft was attempting to patent RSS, so I quickly updated my post to make it clear that the applications were much narrower in scope.
Over the next few days my FeedDemon search feeds brought in a ton of other blog posts and mainstream articles about the subject, many of which continued to claim that Microsoft was trying to patent RSS. By the time Microsoft's Sean Lyndersay had posted his response, much of the geekosphere was already up in arms.
CNET's article was the first mainstream piece I read about about the patents, and to her credit the author tried to decipher what the applications were about. Perhaps that's one reason the article was so widely copied? It quoted both Dave Winer and myself, and the same (or very similar) quotes were used in many other pieces about the patents. I'm not one to complain about free publicity, and I'm flattered to be considered a trusted source, but it's hard to believe that so many independently thinking writers decided to quote the same two people.
But there's more to this story than how bloggers and journalists reacted to a couple of minor patent applications. There were 69 Microsoft patent applications published the same day as the two RSS-related ones, and a quick perusal of LatestPatents.com shows how frequently patents are sought by major tech companies. It seems to me that there are several stories here:
- Why do large companies feel the need to file applications for dubious inventions (cursor interaction and window repositioning, for example)? Do they expect to make a fortune from patent licensing? Are they seeking ways to sue their competitors out of business? Or are they merely protecting themselves from patent trolls?
- We're all building upon prior art here, so why do so many software developers permit themselves to be listed in patent applications as inventors?
- How do companies who on principle refuse to file software-related patent applications defend themselves against patent lawsuits?
- How many of our beloved Web 2.0 companies will turn into (or sell their inventions to) patent trolls if they run out of cash before being acquired? It happened after the first dot-com bubble burst, and it will happen again.
I'd certainly read any article that seriously investigated those questions. How about you?