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Editor's Note: The Importance of Open File Formats

A Clear Abuse of the Patent Process

  • June 8, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

A strong undercurrent of the Open Source movement has been a rebellion against the monopolization of information. If information is free, it cannot be used for pernicious reasons--i.e., used by a company like Microsoft to force consumers to purchase products they normally wouldn't buy. That's why the release of source code is such a powerful thing: there are no secrets that can be hidden in the source code, and anyone is free to build a better mouse trap based on the old mouse trap. This leads to a meritocracy where externalities like money (the better for hiring a raft of lawyers) and proprietary interests are neutralized.

I was reminded of this today when I went to visit one of my favorite Web sites, the Iron Chef fan site. I was greeted by this sad message: "IronChef.com--An Unofficial Site of All Things Iron Chef--is no longer functional. I am deeply saddened that it has come to this: Due to a cease and desist letter, sent by lawyers representing the show's production company, FujiTV, this site's content is current unavailable. What was here represented three year's labor devoted to evangelizing my favorite show. While I would like nothing better than to share with other fans the excitement I have for the show, apparently the production company has other plans."

For the uninitiated, Iron Chef is a Japanese competitive cooking show that's available in the United States courtesy of the Food Network. It also happens to be one of my seven-year-old son's favorite television shows, and it saddens me that a purely fan-driven site--one that posed no competitive threat to Fuji TV, one that was not breaking any U.S. copyright laws, and one that spread the word about the show to a wider audience--had to shut down because a large multinational corporation came a-calling with a big stick. (I suspect that Fuji TV is rather miffed that ironchef.com was not available for its own use, and I also suspect that one of the terms of a future settlement will be the transfer of the ironchef.com domain name to Fuji TV.)

Such abuses are natural when there is a centralization of power, which brings us to the real topic of this column: that when power is centralized, those holding onto the power will go to great lengths to protect it. The very nature of Open Source means that information is freely available to all, meaning that anyone can sidle up and play.

One of the ways that large corporations can keep control of knowledge is through the antiquated U.S. patent process. This is the case with Microsoft, which is claiming a patent for the Active Stream Format (ASF), used in Windows as a streaming-media format and the lynchpin of Microsoft's multimedia efforts, and therefore anyone who has reverse-engineered this multimedia file format is in violation of patent law and potentially liable for damages. This means that no one can come up with a reader that converts a file in the ASF format to any other format, either, unless one uses an authorized parser, presumably sold to them by Microsoft.

Generally speaking, the software industry has not sought to patent file formats, with the idea being that interoperability between file formats on a base level is a good thing: you want your competitor to support your file format, and one way to ensure that is to support your competitor's file format. Microsoft is raising the stakes by invoking patents in its specific file formats. On its face, the Microsoft patent claim is absurd: U.S. parent 6,041,345 generally ignored prior art (like MPEG) and generically describes a multiple-stream file format. Yet the U.S. Patent Office, which is becoming more and more of an embarrassment in the Digital Age, issued the patent.

The ramifications are scary. In this day and age, Microsoft has sought to use the file format as a weapon for forcing product upgrades to powerless consumers. Why do you think that Word and Excel have a new file format every time the software is revised? The new file formats are not changed because of technical reasons; they're changed to force a new "standard" onto users. Sure, everyone plays the game (GNOME, KDE, and StarOffice all have their own proprietary file formats), but Microsoft has the muscle to force these formats down our throats. It is not hard to see this slippery slope: the producers of products like KWord, Corel WordPerfect, and StarOffice would have their hands tied when it came to working with Microsoft Word and Excel documents in future releases.

Using patents to protect legitimate innovation is one thing, but there's not a single person outside of Redmond who would claim that the Active Stream Format is innovative to the point where it needs patent protection, and heavyweight tactics like this are what landed Microsoft in Judge Jackson's court. In the end, beware attempts to control knowledge via the patenting of file formats. The true power of Linux and Open Source is its openness: if Linux users can't share documents with the rest of the world--even with Microsoft users--then the playing field is once again immorally slanted toward Microsoft.

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