Microsoft filed a pair of patents that recently became public via the US Patent and Trademark Office, following the end of an 18-month blackout period. The patents cover the technology involved in the organization and operation of syndicated Web feeds, such as RSS and Atom. The patents were filed on June 21, 2005, an incidental three days shy of Microsoft's announcement that they would be building support for RSS into the Windows Vista OS and their revamped Internet Explorer (IE7) browser. Months prior to that news, Microsoft also integrated RSS aggregation and a directory to their My MSN portal. So while they were late to leverage RSS, it seems they've had no problem trying to secure it in the Microsoft fold.
One of Microsoft's patents-in-the-make covers the "finding and consuming [of] Web subscriptions in a Web browser." The patent describes a related invention that allows users to "subscribe to a particular Web feed, be provided with a user interface that contains distinct indicia to identify new feeds, and [...] efficiently consume or read RSS feeds using both an RSS reader and a Web browser." Sound familiar? Rather so, we think.
The second pending patent is called "content syndication platform" and describes a system that breaks down feeds into an accessible format that can be managed by multiple applications and users.
RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) is normally used by bloggers, podcasters, and news publishers to let interested readers tune into new content on their websites, via RSS-aware software or devices. A menagerie of freeware applications and more recently web browsers exist to collect feeds and put them in an easy-to-read, typically reverse chronological list format.
Dave Winer, who calls himself a co-inventor of RSS, is less than pleased about Microsoft's machinations. In Dave's Scripting News blog he gripes that, "Presumably they're eventually going to charge us to use it [...] This should be denounced by everyone who has contributed anything to the success of RSS." Winer's in crowded company as many others also criticize the pending applications, denouncing them as unoriginal or too broad.
Nick Bradbury of HomeSite and FeedDemon is slightly more diplomatic, suggesting that while MSN's patent claims are iffy at best, they tell us something about the state of the US patent system. He notes "Companies like Microsoft often file patents to prevent having to shell out millions of dollars to predatory lawyers who haven't invented anything other than a legal pain in the ass." Michael Calore at Monkey Bites shares this opinion, pointing out that in the past Microsoft has been "sued for technologies they did arguably invent simply because some else owned a generic patent on them."
When asked for a comment, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company doesn't make public statements about pending patents. But director of corporate standards Jason Matusow defended Microsoft's stake in the patent process, inviting the willing, passionate, or just bored to "submit prior art or input on a patent application with relevant authorities before a patent is issued." That's thoughtful.
In addition, the Microsoft RSS blog team wrote an upbeat but mildly defensive post about the pending patents, giving critics their due respect and asserting "[the] specifications [covered by the patents] provide proof of our commitment to offer our contributions to the community and evidence of our efforts to advance the technology."
Indeed, MS doesn't deserve all the heat, considering they're not the first to shoot for a Web syndication patent in an effort to monetize the all-but-unmanageable frontier. Some major names that get way more public love have tried doing the same thing.
Just last year Google sought a patent for coverage of ad delivery through syndicated news feeds. And in March there was also talk about Apple -- the brand of choice for passionate hipsters -- wrapping its fingers around RSS with its own set of patents.
Patents are valuable for different purposes and for the big boys and girls, they are just part of doing daily business. As Nick Bradbury pointed out, the application's intent could well be defensive, but when was the last time you heard MS described as anything less than highly aggressive? We can reserve judgment, but at the same time frown at the broad language in the applications and generally will not be counting on Redmond's best behavior.