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A couple emailers have pointed out that Microsoft has apparently won a patent on tab navigation of links in a browser.

Theoretically, this means Microsoft could demand royalties from any company or organization whose browser allows users to find and navigate through links on a web page using the ‘tab’ key. Given that open source projects like the Mozilla Foundation lack the funds to pay such royalties, were Microsoft to enforce the patent it would seriously impact the accessibility of the web for people using their browsers.

In reality, despite the fear and loathing the news has engendered in the open source community, I find this outcome unlikely in the extreme. In the first place, as the article linked above indicates, the patent needs to hold up in court. As other outfits have discovered, that’s hardly a slam-dunk when it comes to broad patents like this. Second, Microsoft’s statement from the article linked above doesn’t seem to indicate any aggressive intent on their part:

In response to a query from about how it planned to handle the patent, Microsoft said: “We respond to inquiries about our portfolio and typically have private collaborative discussions with companies about using our technology. Consistent with practice throughout our industry, we don’t believe it’s constructive to identify specific products and start labelling them as infringing or non-infringing.”

It’s not as reassuring as Microsoft’s statements about their patent on CSS, but neither does it sound like the angry noises we heard from Eolas, or Forgent Networks.

To me, it seems the real impact of this patent is to drive home just how misguided the U.S. intellectual property regime has become, particularly with regard to software patents — and why Europe and Australia would do well to think twice before running headlong down that same path, as they appear to be doing.

This isn’t really a ‘standards’ issue, to be honest. It’s a social/legal/economic one. As such, I feel it’s really outside the scope of Buzz. I’ll just leave it now with the observation that lots and lots of bigcos amass patents as a hedge against someone coming after them for patent infringement: “Oh, so we infringed your patent did we? Well you infringed our patent first!” It’s a seven-figure-settlement version of schoolyard squabbling, as in the recent Macromedia-Adobe brou-ha-ha. Distasteful? Sure. But it happens. And Microsoft would be remiss if they didn’t try to protect themselves.

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