Microsoft Seeks Expansion of Patent Rights on 'World Intellectual Property Day'

Microsoft celebrated "World Intellectual Property Day" Tuesday with a new call for protecting IP rights for touch-screen interfaces and Web-based services.

World Intellectual Property Day is a 10-year-old event created by the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency established in 1967 to promote protection of IP rights worldwide. Microsoft's Jason Albert, associate general counsel for IP policy and strategy in Redmond, called for expansion of "design protection" to cover the design of more "virtual" products.

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"Designs play an increasingly important role in the technology sector," Albert wrote in Microsoft's "On the Issues" blog, which focuses on legal and governmental matters. "Whether it is the elegant physical design of a smartphone or the innovative user interface of a software application, good design drives market enthusiasm for technology products. And as more and more of our daily activities migrate online and to the cloud, designs will migrate from the shapes of things made in factories to the shapes of things rendered on computer screens."

Roughly speaking, design patents cover the appearance or style of a product while utility patents cover functionality. Apple is testing the limits of design patents right now by suing Samsung for creating phones and tablets that look similar to the iPhone and iPad. In addition to the physical shape of the products, Apple also claims Samsung copied the design of application icons.

While Microsoft didn't talk about any specific cases, this sort of protection of touch-screen interfaces would fall under the design scenarios Microsoft said should be protected by patent systems.

"Many countries around the world recognize this fact, and make design protection available for both virtual and physical products," Albert wrote. "Unfortunately, others still restrict design protection to purely physical items. This makes less and less sense as specialized physical designs are increasingly replaced by more advanced virtual user interfaces. With 'soft' buttons on a touchscreen replacing mechanical buttons and physical keyboards, and customers becoming more likely to visit an Internet storefront than a brick-and-mortar one, it will become increasingly important that design protection extend to the online world. Strong design protection in the online environment will help drive continued innovation and differentiation in the cloud."

Microsoft's relationship to intellectual property issues is complicated, to say the least. Reviled by open source enthusiasts for suits filed against Linux-based products, including Android, Microsoft is also arguing before the Supreme Court that it should be easier to invalidate patents that shouldn't have been granted in the first place. Even Linux users Red Hat and Google are supporting Microsoft in this case, which began with the vendor i4i suing Microsoft over use of patented technology in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft is also concerned about intellectual property theft through the unlicensed use of its products, which cuts into the company's revenue stream. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even spoke to President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao about the problem earlier this year. (See also: "Ballmer to Hu: 90% of Microsoft customers in China using pirated software.")

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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