Microsoft doesn't sue people very often for patent infringement -- at least not unless someone else sues them first.
Thus, it was quite an event when Microsoft chose to honor Salesforce.com with a patent lawsuit this week. Although the complaint alleges infringement of nine patents from to , what is really going on is that Microsoft has decided to use the hammer of patent litigation to achieve competitive ends, rather than simply throwing its weight around in the marketplace.
Although a lot of press on this case chooses not to focus on the particular patents involved and to concentrate on the particular market segment Microsoft is attempting to muscle into [customer relationship management] and noting that this shows that Microsoft is serious about something called "Dynamics, CRM and cloud computing" [a really good article on this subject is available here and here], this post chooses to focus on neither.
What is kind of exciting is that Microsoft has chosen, at long last, to actually use its patents to compete in the marketplace. Apparently Salesforce.com and Microsoft are hot competitors in the CRM marketplace and Microsoft is using this lawsuit to boost its presence in this market, to show that its product is innovative (and that Salesforce's is not). Microsoft is also using this lawsuit to create doubt in the marketplace about Salesforce's product and perhaps give Salesforce's customers pause before they deal with the company. Microsoft is using this lawsuit to trumpet its competitive position in the CRM and cloud computing marketplace and to show everyone else that it means business.
Not surprisingly, Salesforce.com's stock immediately dropped 5%.
Now, why is this a good thing? Maybe not a good thing for Salesforce.com (who knows whether they are infringing Microsoft's patents or not), but for the patent world? To answer this question, we have to look at what has happened to patent litigation lately
It is no mystery that in the past few years, patent litigation has largely been taken over by patent trolls -- companies that make no products and whose only economic interest in the patents they own is to sue. They create nothing and are nothing but an economic drain -- rewarding nobody other than the lawyers who litigate their case and the hotel and restaurant owners of Marshall and Tyler, Texas. These patents have no economic utility and are employed for no useful purpose.
Microsoft, whatever you may think of its competitive tactics, is actually using the patents it is suing on and is actually competing in the marketplace with the party it is suing. In doing so, it is using the patents for their proper purpose -- to exclude others from practicing the patented technology -- rather than simply to extort a license which no one really wants.
Salesforce.com's CEO, Mark Benioff, obviously also in a fighting mood, called Microsoft a "patent troll" and an "alley thug" for bringing this lawsuit. Whether or not you think that Microsoft is a "thug," (I think you'd get a lot of Microsoft's vanquished competitors to sign on to that description) there is no question that it is not a patent troll -- since Microsoft -- unlike the trolls, actually participates in the marketplace with its technology and uses its patents as a competitive weapon. For this, Microsoft should be congratulated.
So, three cheers for Microsoft -- patent warrior!