Microsoft reportedly has filed two patents covering certain aspects of RSS, Really Simple Syndication. Dave Winer is outraged. Nick Bradbury sagely says "Not so fast". I don't have the inside scoop on this yet, but here is what I think is happening. Microsoft is protecting itself against patent trolls.
Relax. I believe Microsoft has no intention of enforcing this patent against anyone, and no intention of collecting royalties on it. Microsoft is not pretending that they invented RSS...just protecting itself against potential patent infringement lawsuits from "shell companies" and "patent trolls" who do nothing but sue big companies. Sad to say this is the current state of the patent system.
You might recall that Microsoft was sued by a shell company called Eolas for a patent on the embedding and invoking of interactive applications, such as plug-ins and applets, in Web browsers, something every Internet application has done for years. Google was sued for patent infringement on GoogleTalk. Blackberry was sued, for $612M by NTP. RedHat was sued over Hibernate. All of these patent infringement lawsuits cost millions of dollars to settle. And all of them were about commonly used technologies that were in the public domain for years...until some patent troll popped up and produced an obscure patent.
Big successful companies like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and Google are prime targets for patent trolls and their lawyers. These mostly frivolous lawsuits take years to settle and cost millions of dollars to defend, even if you win.
Patent portfolios are the best defense against patent infringement lawsuits. Many times there are overlapping patents or very similar patents on any technology. When a big company is sued the first thing they do is look at their own patent portfolio for a similar patent so they can counter sue. This usually leads to a reasonable out of court settlement. Patents become poker chips in a high stakes game of legal lunacy. Don't you just love lawyers?