Three words sum up Microsoft’s patent infringement suit against Salesforce.com: Competition by litigation. Microsoft knows plenty about competition by litigation, having been its victim through major antitrust cases on two continents. It’s simply shameful action from a company which executies rightly wagged accusing fingers at litigating competitors over the years. Microsoft’s “do unto them like they did unto us” approach cheapens the company. The proof is in the patents, which are hugely broad scope.
Qualifying that I am no patent attorney, I have applied layman’s eyes to the patents that Microsoft alleges Salesforce.com violates. The nine patents read to me as being very broad in scope and potentially applicable to many forms of end user to computer or Web browser interactions — or none at all. If any of these patents are enforceable, the US patent system really does need some reform.
I purposely did not read Microsoft’s description of the patents and Salesforce.com’s alleged violations from the 9-page patent infringement lawsuit. Instead, I looked over the actual patents, reading them as they are and looking at them in context of Salesforce.com’s business, as I understand it. I see huge PR value for Microsoft in filing this lawsuit, possibly inflicting damage against a successful competitor. The patent violations are sure to create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about Salesforce.com’s future business and may even cause some customers to look elsewhere — ah, like Microsoft. However, I see nothing among the nine patents, based on a careful non-lawyerly review, that remotely suggests Salesforce.com has grossly violated Microsoft intellectual property rights.
Now for the nine patents:
7,251,653: “Method and system for mapping between logical data and physical data,” granted July 31, 2007, describes interaction between data in columns and their storage. The patent clearly was intended for spreadsheets.
5,742,768: “System and method for providing and displaying a web page having an embedded menu,” granted April 29, 1998, describes the execution of menus in a Web browser by using an applet; Java is used as an example of applet delivering an “embedded menu” class. The patent was assigned to Silicon Graphics.
5,644,737: “Method and system for stacking toolbars in a computer display,” granted July 1, 1997, describes the display of stacked toolbars on computer operating systems, like Windows. Right, but Saleforce.com serves data to a Web browser. If Salesforce.com violates the patent, I have to ask: What service using toolbars on the Web doesn’t?
6,263,352: “Automated web site creation using template driven generation of active server page applications,” granted July 17, 2001, describes a method for merchants to use hypertext links retrieved from “Active Server Pages.” Say what? When did Salesforce.com become a merchant selling goods? What? Salesforce.com uses ASP.NET — and not licensed with Windows Server? Gosh, and I thought the service was a Linux shop. 🙂
6,122,558: “Aggregation of system settings into objects,” granted Sept. 19, 2000, describes a method for adjusting settings in a “desktop environment.” From the background of the invention section: “The Microsoft Windows, version 3.1, operating system, sold by Microsoft Corporation of Redmond, Wash., provides a control panel that allows a user to adjust various system settings, such as the color settings for the graphical user interface.” Someone explain how a patent applied to the Windows control panel applies to cloud service Salesforce.com.
6,542,164: “Timing and velocity control for displaying graphical information,” granted April 1, 2003, is yet another toolbar patent. This one applies to the interaction of a cursor and “graphical objects.” It’s hugely broad, even though the patent claims the “limitations of the prior art are overcome by the present invention.” If Salesforce.com truly has violated this patent, the question should be: “Who else hasn’t?” The interaction described is a fundamental in computing systems using cursors and graphical objects. Surely, some other companies’ patents overlap this one.
6,281,879: “Timing and velocity control for displaying graphical information,” granted Aug. 28, 2001, is nearly identical to 6,542,164. Same arguments against the other apply to this one. Inventors are the same. The inclusion of two near-identical patents by the same inventor so stinks of competition by litigation.
5,845,077: “Method and system for identifying and obtaining computer software from a remote computer,” granted Dec. 1, 1998, describes a method for distributing software updates to computers over a connection, such as Internet Service Provider. The method describes how Microsoft might use Windows Update. Last I checked — and it has been awhile — Salesforce.com updates server software rather than pushing updates out to remote software. Am I wrong?
5,941,947: “System and method for controlling access to data entities in a computer network,” granted Aug. 24, 1999, describes the differentiating of access rights for “on-line services.” From the background: “The present invention is directed generally to the problem of flexibly and efficiently controlling the access rights of a large number of users to a large number of objects or other data entities.” Of the nine patents, this is the one most seemingly applicable to Salesforce.com. However, 5,941,947 specifically refers to the definition of “on-line services” contained in Microsoft patent 5,774,668. By my reading, the definition doesn’t apply to cloud service Salesforce.com. Moreover, Microsoft did not include 5,774,668 in its lawsuit, which raises doubts about 5,941,947’s applicability to Salesforce.com.