A fight between small Canadian company i4i and software giant Microsoft Corp. is going to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could challenge how patent laws protect exclusive technology.
Toronto-based i4i has been battling Microsoft in a multimillion-dollar patent infringement suit since 2007. A host of tech industry insiders and observers are lining up to have their say on both sides when the case is heard Monday in Washington.
Two lower courts in the United States have ruled that Microsoft used i4i's technology in some versions of its best selling Word software program, with a Texas jury awarding the company $290-million (U.S.) in damages in 2009.
But Microsoft has fought that ruling as far as the legal system will allow. The software giant couldn't be reached for comment, but is expected to challenge current standards for overturning patents.
"They have the right to keep appealing and that's what they're doing," said i4i chairman Loudon Owen, who wants the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold current patent laws when deciding the case.
Mr. Owen said the established laws for overturning a patent requires "clear and convincing" evidence and should be maintained, noting that once a patent expires anyone can use the intellectual property involved. He believes that exclusive intellectual property needs to be protected and properly licensed for others to use.
"The patent you're granted has very little meaning if it's not enforceable. Why have a patent if it's useless?" he said.
"When you get a patent you put your heart and soul into the invention, you work tremendously hard and you spend a lot of money. But if all of a sudden it becomes apparent to everybody that the patent itself is worthless, why do it?"
While many of i4i's customers are pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer, Merck and Nexgen Pharma, the company also supplied technology to the U.S. patent office earlier this decade for an overhaul of its website for patent submissions.
The U.S. government, inventors, venture capitalists and a number of biotech and pharmaceutical companies have lined up behind i4i, while Google Inc. , Apple Inc. , Intel Corp. and others are supporting Microsoft in its efforts.
Patent expert Alexander Poltorak said the case is a potential threat to long-established patent law in the United States.
"Their fight is somewhat of an epic for the future of U.S. patent law," said Mr. Poltorak, chairman and chief executive of U.S.-based General Patent Corp. in New York.
He noted that about half of all patents issued in the United States go to non-U.S. residents.
"So it's an issue of global proportions," he said.