Microsoft backpedals on programming patent

Company says it was a "mistake" to try to patent a programming idea already used in BlueJ Java project.

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Stephen Shankland
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Microsoft plans to withdraw an attempt to patent technology already used in a free Java programming project called BlueJ, the company said Sunday.

BlueJ creator Michael K?lling complained of a Microsoft patent application on Friday on his blog. By Sunday, Dan Fernandez, lead product manager of Microsoft's Visual Studio Express, apologized and said the company is changing course.

"We can officially say that the patent application was a mistake and one that should not have happened. To fix this, Microsoft will be removing the patent application in question," Fernandez said on his blog.

Kölling said Monday that he's mollified by Microsoft's new position. "Some helpful and reasonable individuals within Microsoft have set the machinery in motion to put things right, and that's a good thing," he said.

But the experience has heightened his concerns about software patents, Kölling said in the interview.

"I think software patents are currently granted for things that are much too trivial," he said. "Employees are very much encouraged to file a patent for every single thing they do. I believe that there is a culture that says that they should file a patent in any case, even if they think that it may not be justified, on the pure chance that it may get through."

Microsoft didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Begun in 1998, BlueJ is a programming environment designed to help people learn how to develop object-oriented Java software. Deakin University in Australia and the University of Kent in the United Kingdom oversee the project, with support from Java creator Sun Microsystems, and the software is widely used at hundreds of universities.

The patent in question concerns visually representing interactions of the software objects that make up object-oriented programs, Kölling said in an interview. BlueJ provides a visual representation of such objects' interactions. Kölling had developed the technology earlier, in 1994, and described it in his Ph.D. dissertation, he said.

Microsoft included a similar feature, called Object Test Bench, in its Visual Studio developer tools in 2005, Kölling said in his blog. "I didn't really mind that Microsoft...copied our ideas, but I was a bit peeved that they claimed it as a new innovation of theirs and proudly presented this 'newly developed' feature without attribution," he said.

On Friday, K?lling saw that Microsoft had filed a patent for the technology in 2005--four months after Fernandez said on his blog that Microsoft had added the Object Test Bench in response to academic customers who "wanted this because of the success of this BlueJ feature."

"To my nose, it doesn't get much smellier than that. That stinks," Kölling said.

Microsoft is investigating what happened with the patent, and Fernandez promised to publish an account. "I'm glad in the end we did the right thing," he said.