When I wrote the article about the Microsoft patent application on Friday, I hoped that the visibility it might generate would help our case against this application.
It did. And much more quickly and efficiently than I expected.
It seems that Microsoft will withdraw the application. They have apologised. And all that on a weekend.
But let me take things in order.
In the blog comments, several people have asked whether we had contacted anyone within Microsoft about this. The answer is yes. I have mailed two people within Microsoft whose names I had (who work in academic relations) and made them aware of this story, asking them to forward to people who might be in a position to influence this case.
I have also responded to a Microsoft manager who commented on this blog. In addition, the story was on at least two computer science academics and educators lists, where some Microsoft people are subscribed list members.
Dan Fernandez’ blog also received several comments about this, so I am sure he became aware of this as well.
This morning, when I woke up, the story had moved forward quite a bit over night. I found two mails in my inbox from Jane Prey (Microsoft Research), one to me personally, and one via the SIGCSE (Computer Science Education) mailing list. In these, Jane informed me that Microsoft will withdraw the patent, and she apologised.
Also, several people pointed me to a new blog article by Dan Fernandez, in which he also apologises and makes the same promise.
All considered, I must say that I am impressed and surprised at the speed with which all this happened. It was a weekend, after all! And at the time of writing this, it’s not even Monday morning yet in the US.
Also, all the individual people from Microsoft I have heard from (either directly or via a public statement) have been professional, friendly, and reasonable.
My original article on Friday made the rounds quite a bit. It spread via slashdot, digg, reddit, and many other blogs that referred to it, and so far we logged more than 40,000 hits to the article itself. On slashdot, the discussion degenerated very quickly – and predictably – into the usual “patents are evil” rant (with a sideline of “Microsoft is the antichrist” streak for good measure).
While it may make someone feel better to get that off their chest, we all know that that’s not going to do much good. (I also think that the system of software patents is fundamentally broken, and doing a lot of damage, but that’s another story.)
The important thing is: Some helpful and reasonable individuals within Microsoft have set the machinery in motion to put things right, and that’s a good thing. I am very grateful if this gets resolved without involving the lawyers.
While I am sure we would have had a good case to file for prior art, and while it is likely that this would have stopped the application, I really have better things to do with my time.
I am happy that I can get back to my work, and do not have to spend the day today explaining all this in detail to the university legal people. (They always seem to speak some subtly different language from everyone else. It sounds like English at first, and one thinks one should be able to make sense of what they say or write, but then it all goes funny, and common sense can just not be superimposed over their grammar. It’s a language that I am not too keen on spending time learning.)
So, thanks to Microsoft, especially to Jane Prey, Chris Worland and Dan Fernandez, who reacted to this.
If this application gets withdrawn as quickly as the promise was made, we can all take a deep breath, and get back to writing great computer programs.
For me, it’s back to writing exam questions. Not one of my favourite parts of my work either, but not quite as bad as reading legal documents.
PS: The image at the top is Canterbury Cathedral (or at least its main tower, sticking out of the fog), as seen from the University of Kent campus in Canterbury one autumn morning last year, as I came into work. Here is a second picture from the same day.