Patent lawsuits in the technology industry have become about as common as transistors these days. Still, when a tech company the size of Microsoft gets socked with a $290 million fine (as it did on Tuesday) and is forced to make changes to a flagship product like Word within a few months (or stop selling certain versions of the software all together), it does raise a few eyebrows.

Microsoft saw a profit of more than $14.5 billion for its fiscal 2009, so it's safe to say you won't see its executives out on the street carrying tin cups because of this. More significant than the fine is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit's validation (pdf) of an August injunction ordering Microsoft to stop selling copies of Word 2007 and Office 2007 in the U.S. A lower court ordered the injunction (pdf) after finding that Microsoft had infringed on a patent held by small Canadian software firm i4i, Inc. for a feature in Word that governs how the computer program edits documents containing customized Extensible Markup Language (XML).

Documents have two distinct parts—their text and their structure (which is the encoding that allows the computer to recognize and manipulate the text). Markup languages such as XML tell the computer how text should be processed by inserting "tags" around it. These tags give the computer information about the text, telling it for example to make a word appear in bold print or italics. Custom XML allows programmers to create and define their own tags. In 1998, i4i patented an improvement to editing documents containing markup languages like XML by storing a document's text and tags separately. This lets programmers make changes to text without affecting structure, and vice versa.

As a result of the new ruling, Microsoft will remove its XML editor from copies of Word 2007 and Office 2007 for U.S. sale and distribution by the injunction date of January 11. Beta versions of Microsoft Word 2010 and Microsoft Office 2010, currently available, do not contain the technology covered by the injunction, the company says.

Microsoft had been planning for the possibility that the injunction would be upheld and has "put the wheels in motion" to remove the feature in question from its products, Microsoft director of public affairs Kevin Kutz said in a statement posted to the software company's corporate Web site on Tuesday.

Despite its plans to comply with the court order, Microsoft isn't one to go quietly. "We are also considering our legal options," Kutz says, "which could include a request for a rehearing by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals en banc (before all justices of the appellate court rather than the standard panel of three) or a request for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court." A writ of certiorari is a document that a losing party files with the Supreme Court asking for a review of a lower court's decision.

Image © Stefan Klein