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Microsoft Begs for Word Stay of Execution

Down in East Texas, there's a large area known as the Piney Woods, given that it's home to pine trees that aren't exactly common in much of the rest of the state. There's some real beauty to East Texas; Caddo Lake, the state's only natural lake, has a certain swampy appeal, and Tyler -- native city of football legend Earl Campbell -- is home to famous rose gardens.

But East Texas can get a little scary, too. Those Piney Woods get awfully dark at night, and some say that the town of Jefferson is haunted. But the scariest thing about East Texas has nothing to do with ghosts, shadowy lakes or even a circa-1978 Earl Campbell barreling through a defense like a runaway train. Oh, no. The scariest thing about East Texas is that it is home to the "rocket docket," a court district that is the setting for an unlikely number of patent and intellectual property cases.

It was down in East Texas that Microsoft lost a patent lawsuit and got slapped with a ban on selling Word, the application your editor is using to type this newsletter right now. And it's in East Texas where a company called EMG is now trying to take a bite out of Windows Mobile (although we're wondering how much there really is to nibble on there).

So that's more legal fees for Microsoft and more hassle for everybody involved with the company. Although we figure Microsoft can afford it, we're no fan of patent squatters. Whether these cases fit into that category or not, we're not sure (although the i4i Word case seems to have lots of characteristics of patent squatting), but it really doesn't matter. The good folks of East Texas do a nice business getting companies to sue each other down in the Piney Woods, so plaintiffs are likely to keep winning these battles.

Of course, it's not really the fault of your editor's fellow Texans that these patent cases keep popping up. While we're no expert on software patent laws (otherwise your editor would be rushing around Marshall, Texas, right now), some clear-headed reform does seem to be in order. We're virulent defenders here of intellectual property and the ability of companies to protect it, but we'd prefer that those companies that claim it actually do something with it rather than waiting to pounce on a firm that's actually trying to make and sell something.

First things first, though: Microsoft has to try to stave off the Word-sales ban which is its priority right now. After that, maybe legislators, judges, the software industry as a whole and even the good folks of East Texas can re-think how software patent laws work. To twist (and possibly misuse) an old expression, it seems as though right now a lot of folks can't see the Piney Woods for the trees.

Are patent lawsuits out of control? How does it affect your business when Microsoft has to defend itself from this sort of thing? Sound off at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on August 19, 2009 at 11:55 AM