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Microsoft Launches Online Patent-Tracking Tool

Information about Microsoft patents is now available in a searchable form as part of a transparency pledge, Microsoft announced Thursday.

The release of a new Microsoft Patent Tracker Tool comes ahead of a promise made last month by Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft. At that time, Smith said that Microsoft would "publish on the web information that enables anyone to determine which patents we own" by April 1.

That April 1 date apparently was no April Fool's Day joke, as the Patent Tracker Tool Web portal is now available here. In addition, users can download a comma-delimited CSV file at that site that lists all of Microsoft's patents if they want to work with the data offline. According to a download of that file, Microsoft has about 40,785 patents in its database.

"We took this approach so that people can come to our site if they want to run a quick search, but can also download the information if they want to perform deeper analysis," Smith explained in a blog post Thursday.

The Patent Tracker Tool database includes patents held under Microsoft's name, as well as its subsidiaries. A subsidiary is defined as a company in which Microsoft has 50 percent ownership or greater, according to Microsoft's FAQ. Oddly, although the Patent Tracker Tool is Microsoft's product, it uses data from Thomson Reuters to list Microsoft's intellectual property.

Other patent search tools that can be used include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's search site or Public Pair, as well as the European Patent Office's Espacenet Patent Search site.

Open Source Wrangling
Microsoft's move to become more transparent on its patent holdings might be described a somewhat of an evolutionary process. Not too long ago, the company's legal department took an entirely different approach when it came to open source software. Back in 2007, Microsoft's attorneys had claimed that open source software, including Linux, had violated 235 of Microsoft's patents. However, while stating that, company officials didn't publicly specify which patents were infringed. The Linux community interpreted those actions as just spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Later, Microsoft attempted to establish intellectual property "peace of mind" deals with some Linux developers, promising not to sue them as part of interoperability deals. However, few Linux OS developers accepted the offer. The main exception was Novell and its SuSE Linux Enterprise operating system product. That interop deal is still continuing under the new SuSE ownership by Attachmate.

Attack on Android
Microsoft also began tapping mobile device makers that were using the Google-developed Android operating system, which is based on Linux. Microsoft either inked royalty deals with companies using Android or it went to court with them, although few resisted Microsoft's intellectual property claims. At a certain point, Microsoft claimed to have established deals with 70 percent of U.S. equipment manufacturers using Android. Microsoft licenses its own Windows Phone mobile OS to equipment makers, but Google offers Android to them royalty free, undercutting Microsoft's market position.

Google offered no indemnity to OEMs using Android, but it did fight back with its own patent claims via its Motorola Mobility subsidiary. Microsoft claimed foul on Google's inclusion of FRAND (fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory) patents in litigation, but the resulting legal spats have led to a global slugfest between the two companies. Possibly, it's led to software users being affected, too. For instance, the two companies are currently squabbling over Exchange ActiveSync support, which may be the reason why some sync services aren't interoperable anymore for some users of Microsoft's apps.

Microsoft typically goes to court as a last resort after requesting that companies pay it royalties on its intellectual property. Transparency on patents now appears to be a new tactic for Microsoft to boost its bottom line. Possibly, the tactic changed because of Google's legal resistance.

Microsoft also has worked to "reform" U.S. patent law, having advocated for the America Invents Act, which passed and was signed into law. The new law radically changed the U.S. patent system to the "first to file" process, which went into effect earlier this month. The first-to-file process may speed up the U.S. patenting process, but it's also expected to favor large corporations over individual inventors.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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