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Microsoft patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"

Microsoft has filed a patent claim for "sparklines in the grid":

http://sparklines-excel.blogspot.com/2009/11/united-states-patent-application.html

Here is the link to the Microsoft filing of the patent claim:

http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2009/0282325.html

made by

Radakovitz, Samuel Chow (Redmond, WA, US) Buerman, Adam Michael (Bellevue, WA, US) Garg, Anupam (Redmond, WA, US) Androski, Matthew John (Bellevue, WA, US) Becker, Matthew Kevin (Kirkland, WA, US) Ruble, Brian S. (Bellevue, WA, US)

Microsoft's patent claims deal with putting sparklines in spreadsheets (and, more generally, grids), which many have already done, and which I have suggested for years. Indeed, Beautiful Evidence (page 62) shows sparklines in grid boxes and even explains how to design those boxes! The claims way over-reach and seek to control and to own the use of sparklines in spreadsheets. My spirit in making sparklines was to make something helpful for intense data analysis and give it away to the world. Repayment results from my joy in seeing the use of my open source invention. What Microsoft's patent claims demonstrate is the ridiculous state of the US patent system and of those who seek to exploit that system.

The Microsoft claims appear to go far beyond spreadsheets. The title of their patent submission is "Sparklines in the grid." Note the title is not "Sparklines in Excel." Every data table has a grid, sometimes invisible, sometimes with little ordered boxes. Nearly all typography has an underlying grid, so even a sparkline placed in a sentence might qualify as a "sparkline in a grid." And, of course, every spreadsheet has a grid. The claims involve software code that constructs and possibly drives those sparklines in the grid. All sparklines are produced by software code, one way or another. Although masked by the language of patent legalese, the claims, when taken at their word, appear extremely broad.

Finally, there are many open source programs that produce sparklines into a spreadsheet. These computer programs have been reported at my forum for years (beginning in 2003):

http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0000Lk&topic_id=1

About 20 different programs, including code, are listed in the link above. Also my students at Yale hacked Excel to produce sparklines, probably around 1996-1998.

Further discussion is found at many other forums. Nearly all the discussants in those forums have ignored the link immediately above, which reveals many prior computer programs that already seem to do what is now claimed by Microsoft.

Peter Norvig of Google reports "Sparklines have been in the Google Chart API since 2007, I believe; see cht=ls in http://code.google.com/apis/chart/types.html ; and are in the Google Visualization API http://code.google.com/apis/visualization/documentation/gallery/imagesparkline.html and thus can be embedded in spreadsheets and gadgets." Source: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2009/11/19/microsoft-puts-edward-tuftes-sparklines-into-excel/

-- Edward Tufte


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Under 35 U.S.C. 301, you may submit proof of prior art to the patent office for any patent. To quote:

"Any person at any time may cite to the Office in writing prior art consisting of patents or printed publications which that person believes to have a bearing on the patentability of any claim of a particular patent. If the person explains in writing the pertinency and manner of applying such prior art to at least one claim of the patent, the citation of such prior art and the explanation thereof will become a part of the official file of the patent. At the written request of the person citing the prior art, his or her identity will be excluded from the patent file and kept confidential."

In short, call the patent office, and tell them that you wish to submit prior art under 35 U.S.C. 301. Given that you have a published book with a clear description of the subject matter, it is a very strong case.

Alternatively, you could ignore it. It may not issue, and even if it does, it may not be defensible.

-- Scott McClure (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I would inquire with the EFF and see if they would take this up. It sounds like a classic IP "land" grab - seems like a good idea, and nobody else is going to monatize it then we'll claim it (and perhaps try to charge for it.)

-- Greg La Vardera (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Talk to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. http://w2.eff.org/patent/

-- Carlos Bueno (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

It's interesting that their own MSDN blogs credits you with their invention:

"For Excel 2010 we've implemented sparklines, "intense, simple, word-sized graphics", as their inventor Edward Tufte describes them in his book Beautiful Evidence."

http://blogs.msdn.com/excel/archive/2009/07/17/sparklines-in-excel.aspx

-- John (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I know a few of those people on the patent application. I'll contact them and ask what's going on. From my earlier days in excel, there was pressure (and rewards) for people to file patents. The author/engineers are often herded into writing these things without much fore (or after)-thought.

-- Jason Allen (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

You might want to contact the EFF as soon as possible.

-- Yi Ming Woo (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Discussion regarding this going on over at HN: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=950266

-- Joseph (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Pretty much nothing. It doesn't even matter if they get the patent; the second they try to enforce it it's lost on extremely broadly documented prior art.

That said, they aren't trying to patent sparklines. They're trying to patent the use of sparklines as a visualization for a single cell in a grid. In the US patent system, that's night and day different. (Indeed, simply by using the name "sparklines" they're tacitly ceding that they didn't invent the visualization itself.)

So don't worry. Nobody's patenting sparklines, and if they were, it wouldn't matter.

-- John Haugeland (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Please do us all a favour and accept one of the legio of offers from high-end IPR lawyers to protest the application that you will undoubtedly receive shortly. It would be hugely beneficial to us all if a prolific person like yourself illustrate the ridiculousness of Microsoft's patent policy.

-- Martin (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

It's not clear to me whether they're trying to patent sparklines or the placement of sparklines in a spreadsheet grid.

The former should be denied for obvious reasons, and you should have no problem fighting. The latter probably should be denied to, but they've been known to give them for more obvious things, so fighting it may be harder.

-- Peter (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

According to this preview of Office 2010, Sparklines will be included in the new version of Excel.

At a minimum, I recommend notifying Microsoft of the extensive prior art of sparklines, with citations to your books and the extensive discussions of sparklines in the conversation threads here. There are many links to sparkline add-ins for Excel and other programs provided in the other threads. All of that would prove invaluable in demonstrating to the USPTO that this is not a novel invention by Microsoft.

Did you devise the word itself? There may be some trademark issues involved, as well.

Microsoft recently got in trouble because one of its developers incorporated some open source code in one of its lesser programs. When called to their attention, Microsoft made a prompt review and did the right thing, releasing their own code to open source as required by the open source license. Thus it may simply be that nobody in a higher position of authority at MS realized that the concept is not novel, and they will react appropriately. I imagine that you've got sufficient contacts to communicate in one way or another with fairly high levels of the Microsoft organization. If nothing else, find a high-powered attorney whom you know and have them make some immediate calls to Microsoft's general counsel.

-- Patrick Martin (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

What would you do if someone claimed responsibility for your books or sculptural work?

Microsoft has a very unfortunate problem lately with trying to patent other people's ideas and prior work. Here's an article from eight days ago where they tried to patent the functionality of the free SUDO command found in UNIX systems: http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20091111094923390

-- Doug (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

This does not claim sparklines, but rather autogenerating them in a document based on that document's data. One of the applicants credits Tufte at http://blogs.msdn.com/excel/archive/2009/07/17/sparklines-in-excel.aspx .

Bissantz has prior art dated 2006. See http://www.juiceanalytics.com/writing/sparklines-in-excel-simplicity-itself/ , and also http://ctan.org/tex-archive/graphics/sparklines/

(This is a summary of points brought up at http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=950266 )

-- Anonymous (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

There is so much prior art on this one, it'd be a travesty of the patent system if they actually got it.

It's effectively just a dynamically updated diagrammatic device for web pages in almost any context dealing with analysis of a changing process. Examples abound on any number of Google's pages, not to mention -any- company's real-time data listings.

Hell. Your computer's cpu progress bar is a sparkline.

Prior art. Period.

Those claimants at Microsoft should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. There's simply no motivation for such a pathetic attempt at acquiring the appearance of accomplishment other than a desire to find an escape from their own feelings of inadequacy, ineptitude, and intellectual impotence.

-- Nels (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Ironically, I just happened to go to the beta site for Microsoft's new version of Office 2010 (http://www.microsoft.com/office/2010). If you click on the Excel icon in the middle of the page the first thing you see is a classic sparkline. I immediately thought, "Wow, good for Tufte! Microsoft recognized a great idea and even paid homage to him by using the same name."

So I came to your site to see your announcement of some sort of an agreement or at least a conversation with the Redmond behemoth. And now I read they have the unmitigated gall to try and patent the concept!? That is so far beyond the pale, even for Microsoft. Granted their history is rife with cheap knockoffs of other's innovations, but to so blatantly try to take credit for the idea is dumbfounding.

From a legal standpoint, your work certainly establishes prior art. Since you never sought patent protection for the invention or trademark protection for the name, they are free to use it...but not free to steal it. I would speak to a patent attorney and explore ways of getting the knowledge of your prior art in the right hands at the USPTO. Then I would start a grassroots campaign to shame Microsoft in to doing the right thing, namely dropping the patent and acknowledging your work.

Personally I feel anyone with the impudence to put their name on the patent application should be shunned by the design and software engineering communities...but that's just me.

Brian Spaid - University of Tennessee

-- Brian Spaid (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

To be fair, they're not making a claim on sparklines themselves, but rather the idea of embedding a sparkline in a document in a way that it is linked to data in a different part of the document and auto-updates when the values change, etc. etc.

Were this patent to issue, it would not prevent anyone from using sparklines. It might make another document editing vendor concerned about including a auto-linked sparklines feature such as the one described, but it seems pretty clear from the Sparklines for Excel people that there is extensive prior art in the area so the patent would not be a real threat. The big problem is that it costs, on average, $2 million to defend against a bogus patent claim; something like this would settle out of court in a cross-licensing agreement, surely.

It's a dumb patent filing, and I don't think it qualifies as "non-obvious to one skilled in the art," despite the fact that I'm over-optimistic about people in general. The prior art will likely kill this, and it sounds like the Sparklines for Excel folks are on top of that. Keep in mind, you can file whatever you want with the patent office, as long as you're willing to pay the filing fee...

-- Jered Floyd (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I'm going to go with "nothing".

It doesn't appear to me that they are trying to patent the visualization--they are trying to patent the user interface for generating the visualization.

They're not trying to patent sparklines anymore than they're trying to patent the pie chart.

-- Joe Miller (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I have just read the patent claim and, although no patent expert, it seems to me the claim is not for the sparkline concept, but a specific implementation of sparklines in a grid such as Excel uses. Patents are not used to protect ideas (sparklines) but the practical expression of ideas (how to put sparklines in a spreadsheet). E.T. would not have been able to patent the idea of sparklines without inventing a spurious and specific mechanism for making them, nor could he have copyrighted the concept except for individual sparkline shapes. Unless you - in the modern parlance - productize an idea, it remains there for anyone to copy and implement as they wish. It's dishonorable of Microsoft to do this without involving E.T. or compensating him for this superb idea, but not illegal.

-- Simon Pride (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

You should definitely submit prior art but I have hope you'll do so and force this to be "unpatentable" rather than try to claim a patent. Sparklines are a logical evolution of information design and not a piece of intellectual property anyone should "own". I'm pretty sure I've seen early work from Jay Doblin with very similar properties, all respect to you sir. I've attended your events, have a signed poster of yours on the wall and evangelize your message.

Best,

Zachary Jean Paradis Sapient Adjunct Faculty, IIT Institute of Design

-- zachary jean paradis (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Dr Tufte - I would contact Microsoft. The organisation is so huge this is likely to be an automatic filing in regard of their technological implementation of Sparklines which many there will not even know has been posted - it will be part of their ongoing applications every time they do a new release.

However, there will be many fans of your work at Microsoft who would be horrified to think that they offended you or tried to claim your work as their inspiration. At the very least, I think that MS should be paying you a royalty for the use of your idea. I'd go straight to the people concerned and keep it cordial - my guess if you'll have many fans there and the left hand and right hand are just out of sync.

May as well keep it cordial to start and if that fails then go to plan B. Many people are far to willing to reach for the gun when they should just go for the handshake.

-- Gareth Johnson (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Well, of course...we should absolutely post our thoughts on

http://blogs.msdn.com/excel/default.aspx

the lovely excel team blog spot. Not to mention other blogs that the authors have created online (perhaps someone could post them up here?).

The wonderful thing about the internet is the immediacy with which one can share displeasure.

These thieves would try to advance their careers with the work of others.

-- Joe (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

"That is so far beyond the pale, even for Microsoft."

Unfortunately not. This sort of thing is common and if it happened to me I'd much rather it was Microsoft than some lone or SME 'inventor' or patent troll company (c.f. http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/mik/2007/01/28/more-on-the-microsoft-bluej-patent-case/ ).

Genuinely non-novel and even duplicate and overlapping patents are often granted of course - most infamously, the two LZW patents - but as others have pointed out, a granted version of this patent application will most likely at worst foreclose the use of sparklines in spreadsheet cells, or a particular means of implementing sparklines - not the use of sparklines per se. IOW it will be a patent for a "follow-on" 'invention'.

Since a patent on a rather trivial follow-on invention would (probably) be found valid in a court and upheld (unlike a non-novel invention) that is not much consolation perhaps but the patent system is not, never has been, and cannot be there to 'protect' only "spark of genius" inventions. The folly and error is in the extension of patentable subject matter to this field, not in Microsoft's applying for such a patent and not in the USPTO's granting of it (if they do).

-- PL Hayes (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

Simon Pride wrote: ----- I have just read the patent claim and, although no patent expert, it seems to me the claim is not for the sparkline concept, but a specific implementation of sparklines in a grid such as Excel uses. Patents are not used to protect ideas (sparklines) but the practical expression of ideas (how to put sparklines in a spreadsheet). E.T. would not have been able to patent the idea of sparklines without inventing a spurious and specific mechanism for making them, nor could he have copyrighted the concept except for individual sparkline shapes. Unless you - in the modern parlance - productize an idea, it remains there for anyone to copy and implement as they wish. It's dishonorable of Microsoft to do this without involving E.T. or compensating him for this superb idea, but not illegal. -----

I am an IP lawyer, although I am not licensed to prosecute patents. I do want to clear up some of the misconceptions in this answer, however.

First, patents are NOT used to protect the expression of ideas. That is singularly the role of copyright law.

Second, patents are issued for inventions. Mr. Pride does provide some of the elements required for a successful patent, but his response still does not address the question head on. A good resource for what may be patented is Wikipedia's 'Patentable subject matter' entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patentable_subject_matter

The question is whether Microsoft's patent is novel, non-obvious, has utility, and has an industrial application. I encourage anyone interested in this to read more on Wikipedia's entry.

The real question, I would imagine, is whether there is the necessary 'inventive step,' i.e. whether Microsoft's implementation is indeed novel and non-obvious. (Prior art strikes right at these claims, and someone above has claimed a plug-in allowing for sparklines to be used in Excel already existed.)

Then there is the whole question of whether software-based patents can even be granted after In re Bilski -- for which Wikipedia also has a great entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilski

In the end, I encourage Mr. Tufte to contact a lawyer about his specific situation if he is concerned. The best way to prevent an unwarranted patent from being issued is, sadly, doing the USPTO's work for them. (They are underpaid, understaffed, and have too high a workload.)

I hope this helped.

-- John Nelson (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I think I might be able to prove some even older prior art here - I presented very similar ideas in a short paper at CHI already in 1995.

The paper is available at http://www.truve.com/downloads/ShortPaperTruveCHI95.pdf

--Staffan Truve

-- Staffan Truve (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for sparklines!!

I would advocate reviewing your situation with the EFF and a patent attorney as well.

Personally, I think it looks like more bully posturing on the part of Microsoft.

In any case, I do acknowledge your prior art as do others, and I think the how about if we stamp our logo on, box up and sell your idea using a "not patenting the art, just how we use it" argument further exemplifies the glaring need for serious US patent process reform.

In my opinion they did this because they think they can get away with it and should you not resist, they probably will. If you push back on the application's uphill roll you may have a chance to protect your rights, however if it is issued, you will be in what I would consider the downhill roll where the resources required to resist and defend will inevitably be much greater.

Nice work by the way, and thanks for making your idea public.

In the interest of Open Source software I personally hope that you choose to defend and protect your work, otherwise I would not be surprised to see Microsoft begin attacking the use of your art when it is implemented in Open Office or some other product which threatens the highly profitable stranglehold it holds on document technology.

-- Dan Maus (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

Dear Dr/Professor Tufte,

There is a lot of advice on this page already, with a lot of it saying things like "don't worry about it - prior art". I wish that were enough. the U.S. Patent System simply can not and does not research every patent claim and relies on people stepping forward to provide information. What might be 'obvious to a practicioner' is by no means obvious to a patent clerk, especially when the patent language is so obfuscated. In a situation like this, you need to hire a lawyer; an expert in their craft, just like you are. It may be enough that you provide prior art and walk away. It also might not be, and knowing the difference is in the realm of lawyers.

In these circles you are very much a public figure. You might not be "Oprah Winfrey", but there is immense public policy value in having a figure such as you do the Right Thing and take a very visible stand. I think you would be doing us all a favor. This might not be a responsibility you want, but it is one that you have found yourself in.

-- David Bock (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

Get Groklaw on your side and let them and their wide, committed audience get behind you:

http://www.groklaw.net/

This is certainly a case where "prior art" has both literal and legal implications.

-- Jim (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

This could be a very interesting question. Several commenters above are correct that MS is not seeking a patent on sparklines per se, but simply on sparklines being represented (through bar, line, or - bizarrely, I think - pie charts) within the data grid itself, contained in a cell of a spreadsheet or other document.

That concept itself is rather broad, though. Claim 1 is for "associating a sparkline with a location in a document to provide a visual representation of one or more data values included in the document." It's not just a cell in a spreadsheet; it's any location in any computer document.

That is, in fact, the essence of Prof. Tufte's work on sparklines. You put the data right in-line with related information, just as Galileo embedded his drawings of Saturn directly in the line of text.

The "computer method" which is associated with the Claim is nothing more than a standard flow chart for generating a chart based on a collection of data, monitoring whether that data has changed, and making changes to the graph when it does. There's a lot of stuff about making the sparkline configurable, transparent or not, based on relative or absolute data locations, etc., but all that involves additional claims beyond the first, broad, basic claim.

It appears to me, then, that this patent really does simply cover using a computer to generate a sparkline and place it in line with the data. There is no novel computer program or algorithm introduced to make this possible; it is a simple, straight-forward use of sparklines exactly as they were intended to be used.

The bare idea of putting placing a graph in a particular location in a document really is not something which should be patentable.

-- Patrick Martin (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

There are sparklines all over financial websites, including on Google Finance. Google has some money and may be willing to be your ally on this one.

-- Nosredna (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

Dear Dr. Tufte,

Since December 2006, based on original code by Rob van Gelder, posted on the blog "Daily dose of Excel" I worked on a User Defined Function that could create Sparklines in an Excel grid.

In May 2008, I decided to host and open my work on SourceForge and opened a blog to share with other XL users : sparklines-excel.blogspot.com.

Today this add-in includes several types of 'in-cell' charts, including the horizontal bar and column charts implemented by Microsoft. Also, Bissantz and Bonavista have release their own Sparklines add-ins at about the same time. I would not be surprised if Dr. Nicholas Bissantz applied for some similar patent before Microsoft.

I was surprised to see Microsoft apply for a Sparkline patent, but certainly more disappointed by the limited scope of their implementation. Obsiously they did not make their research work and study what was already available on the market. Actually, I was willing to share my work w/ them, and hand no answer to my comment on their blog...

As a bottomline, I would say that yourself, Bonavista, Bissantz and maybe myself will only benefit from the buzz created by Microsoft's patent appliance.

-- Fabrice Rimlinger (email)


Response to Microsoft makes patent claim for "sparklines in the grid"!!

"First, patents are NOT used to protect the expression of ideas. That is singularly the role of copyright law."

Quite right. They are much, much more powerful and can 'protect' all possible expressions of an idea. Every good patent application will aspire to do so but sometimes the patent examiner will be able to thwart the applicant's wilder ambitions. Sometimes - but all too often not*. Contrary to the upside down popular mythology promoted by the IP creationists, it is not possible to (attempt to) steal an idea /except/ by patent and Microsoft (who are not exceptional and should not be blamed) are well known for providing a great many illustrations of this ironic fact.**

In fact given what is known about the patent system*** only an economically and technologically illiterate imbecile could consider it a good idea to extend patentable subject matter to cover the infinitely vast abstract realm of information processing. The potential for myriad outrageous injustices - from RIM to Blackboard to JMRI**** to... - and economic damage with no mitigating and balancing benefit is so very obvious, isn't it?...

...*sigh*

* http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/11/eff-tackles-bogus-podcasting-patent-and-we-need-yo

** http://blogs.msdn.com/rssteam/archive/2006/12/23/patent-applications-in-the-rss-space.aspx (plh is me and, interestingly, Yahoo! submitted an almost identical patent application)

*** http://researchoninnovation.org

**** http://jmri.sourceforge.net/k/index.html

-- PL Hayes (email)


Has anyone noticed that M$ is also buying AdWords on "sparklines"? I'm not sure what to think about that.

Brian Spaid

-- Brian Spaid (email)


Fight it!

-- Richard Senft (email)


Useful Information about Patents

With regard to a submission of prior art by the public under 35 USC 301, if I understand this correctly it must be done soon (45 days?) after the publication date. In this case, publication date is November 12, 2009.

The USPTO maintains an electronic copy of all of the documents in an application. This is known as a file wrapper. For published application, parts of the file wrapper are visible to the public. The portal for public access is known as "public PAIR" (http://portal.uspto.gov/external/portal/pair). Not all documents are public, but many interesting ones are. The original claims, drawings, and disclosure are public, as are the information disclosure statement (IDS) filed by applicant.

For example, in this application (11/116,884), there is an Information Disclosure Statement filed by the Applicant. In addition to 11 US patents, applicant references Tufte's blog post "Sparklines: Theory and Practice" and Adar et al. "Why we Search: Visualizing and Predicting User Behavior".

I did not look up the 11 US patents to see whether they included any of the authors that Ms. Rimlinger mentions above (Bissantz, Bonavista van Gelder).

Another useful thing to notice is that the first claim set is usually very broad. The first claims are almost never allowed as a patent.

-- Erika (email)


Someone from the PTO told me around two years ago that they were not allowed to search the public web, just authorized databases. I understand the issues of non-trustable sources, but that's ridiculous.

The US Patent Office had a web site designed to allow everyone to comment on patents, especially prior art: Peer to Patent. However, the sparklines patent application doesn't seem to be there, and the experiment seems to have ended on June 30, 2009. The sparklines application is the perfect example of why the patent examiners need outside help.

-- Avi Rappoport (email)


I think it's absurd that some people at Microsoft believe they can claim a patent on the combined software functionality of two general features (grids and sparklines) commonly used in concise information presentation. The grid is merely a property, but the sparkline is a method - the "action verb" that in this case, infuses life into the grid. The Microsoft group is trying to mask the sparkline's identity as a method by incorporating it into a spreadsheet cell and using the grid as an umbrella.

The reexamination of patent law as it relates to information is long overdue. Ann Branscomb, in her 1994 book "Who Owns Information" suggests the following (from page 155):

"A new paradigm could focus on the uses of information assets rather than the copying of intellectual property. We could avoid using copyright or patents or trade secrets. It would be necessary only to sort out which uses are permitted, which are prohibited and which require compensation to be made to the originating party. These several categories can be sorted out into the following 'uses'"

She proceeds to describe those uses: Nonuse, Authorized Use, Misuse, Abuse, Unauthorized But Fair Use.

-- Dan MacKenzie (email)


"Someone from the PTO told me around two years ago that they were not allowed to search the public web, just authorized databases."

I don't believe this is true. At least in the case of USPTO trademark examiners, the searches that they make are disclosed and in the public record (and are actually quite fascinating--these guys know the advanced search operators inside out).

-- Tommy (email)


Sparklines as outlined in the patent application is what MicroCharts, Bissantz sparklines (and may others) do since 2006. So on a first view it seems that there is enough prior art to make this patent pointless and that the patent attorney did not a lot of research on prior art, if at all. However, in detail things are a bit more complicated than

Mark wrote on another blog: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2009/11/19/microsoft-puts-edward-tuftes-sparklines-into-excel/

"Go to the last two or three pages of the patent application: The "claims" are listed there. That's the patent. All the stuff before is meaningless dicta. The patent is for anything the duplicates ALL ELEMENTS of any given claim. In other words, if something matches, say, 6 out of the 7 elements of the first claim, it would not violate the patent. It has to match all 7.

Microsoft's claims are extremely specific and narrow, and they clearly exceed the patent office's "novelty" requirement (none of the examples in the comments above are prior art to these narrow claims). The claims may or may not pass the "obviousness" requirement (but note that the word "obvious" is a legal term of art here whose meaning differs from the Merriam-Webster meaning, so bone up on that before making outraged comments on it)."

The claims are: A computer-implemented method, comprising: [a] associating a sparkline with a location in a document to provide a visual representation of one or more data values included in the document associating with the sparkline a data source within the document including the one or more data values; [b]associating the sparkline with one or more presentation options; [c] generating the sparkline according to the one or more data values and the one or more associated presentation options by generating the selected visual representation based on the one or more data values with a matrix of points proportional to the associated location in the document; [d] presenting the sparkline at the associated location in the document; [e] and configuring the sparkline to be updated, such that: the sparkline is regenerated when one or more of the data values in the data source change; [f] and the one or more presentation options are maintained when one or more document attributes are changed.

MicroCharts duplicates all features but it seems that MicroCharts does not scale itself based on the containing cell [d] (as MicroCharts render its sparklines as fonts), where as the application indicates [d] (that sparklines will be rendered using a matrix-based system that scales based on "associated location", i.e. containing cell. A not very well known feature of MicroCharts is that it can size itself based on the size of the containing cell. You have to uncheck the bar-with or the aspect-ratio parameter and MicroCharts will calculate the bar-with or the aspect-ratio of the sparkline so that the MicroChart fits into the cell.

Therefore MicroCharts clearly qualifies as prior art and the MS patent is pointless.

Andreas Lipphardt www.bonavistasystems.com

-- Andreas Lipphardt (email)


wouldn't this be an obvious prior art to invalidate this application(http://www.spreadsheetml.com/sparklines.html)?

These guys released in February 2008 while the patent filing was mid-2008.

-- Simon L (email)


Another vote for fighting it. Don't let Microsoft get away with its typical heavy-handedness and theft. The Electronic Frontier Foundation can help you.

-- Jorden Mauro (email)


As a patent attorney, it's interesting to read some of these comments. Some are right, some are flat-out wrong; but I don't want to debate the relative merits of the U.S. patent system here. Some relevant (and accurate) points have been made in other posts. I want to summarize/expand on some of these points.

1. The claims of this patent are directed to (without quoting) creating sparklines in a document and dynamically updating the sparkline is the underlying data or the display options are changed. The claims are not directed to sparklines themselves.

2. Microsoft cited the "Sparklines: Theory and Practice" board thread in an Information Disclosure Statement filed on September 23, 2008.

3. On January 4, 2010, the following additional items were cited:
www.dailydoseofexcel.com/archives/2006/02/05/in-cell-charting
www.spreadsheetml.com/sparklines.html -- SparkCode article
www.spreadsheetml.com/products.html -- TinyGraphs Excel add-in

4. You can submit additional prior art, but you are time-limited to two months from the publication date of the application. So you have until January 12, 2010. You are limited to ten documents and can not make any comments on the prior art (so it's really just a list of references and copies of the references). There is a $180 fee associated with the filing, and a copy must be sent to Microsoft's attorneys. (See the USPTO rules on this topic.)

If you would like help with this, please e-mail me.

-- Steven J. Gelman (email)


Note that your loyal fans have gotten an acknowledgment of your contribution on http://news.office-watch.com/t/n.aspx?a=1369

I hope you'll be able to get your lawyers to get some recognition from Microsoft itself.

-- Don G (email)


To those who commented along the lines of "don't worry, it'll be invalidated anyway" or "it'll be unenforceable" ... True enough. It's obvious to me, as a non-lawyer, that the patent is absurd. Microsoft's argument, if they attempt to defend the patent, will likely be that the innovation lies in the application of sparklines within a spreadsheet. It's obvious that a tremendous amount of prior art exists, an ET's original treatment of sparklines alone is probably sufficient to invalidate the patent, even in the context of use in a spreadsheet. So, why worry, right?

There's absolutely nothing here of concern to anyone who has the cash to defend against an infringement action from Microsoft and Bill's army of lawyers.

Think about that for a minute ... MS has *tons* of lawyers on salary. The real cost to them of suing an "infringer" is trivial, in the overall scheme of things. However, defending against such a suit would be ruinous for most of us, individuals and small software shops alike.

Bad patents aren't "OK" because they are likely "easy" to invalidate, or because there is prior art. No matter how obvious the prior art, litigation still costs money. And IP lawyers are very, very expensive. (And, whether you be right or wrong, good luck with your pro se defense!) The fact that to defend would be so overwhelmingly expensive means that many won't risk infringing a supposedly invalid patent. Which is the point of patents in the first place, right?

So, in other words, there is no such thing as an invalid patent. If USPTO issues it, it had teeth. If you are contemplating writing a piece of software, for example an Excel add-in or a rival spreadsheet program implementing sparklines, you should be scared as hell of the potential of litigation, regardless of whether you believe the patent to be "valid" or not.

-- Anonymous Coward (email)


Crowdsourcing patent review

The USPTO is piloting a program called Peer-to-Patent, essentially crowd-sourcing prior-art research. It would seem to me every scientist and engineer would want an account on this service. http://www.peertopatent.org/

-- Niels Olson (email)


Hi, this is a bit late, but with regard submitting to the USPTO, you may not need do that. If you do it will cost you a filing fee.

Instead, it is simpler to send via registered mail a copy of the prior art to the authors and laywer indicated on the front of the application. If Msoft doesn't, then forward that art to the USPTO then their patent will be invalid.

Either way, there is a clock ticking. Once a patent is issued it is hard to get the USPTO to change their mind. Before the patent is issued the burden is on Msoft to prove novelty.

Good luck, John

-- john (email)


Tableau Software patent for "Small Multiples"

I think there is something interesting to add to this discussion. Where Microsoft might (or might not) get a patent for "sparklines in the grid" (unlikely with the all prior art filings) Tableau Software already has a valid patent for small multiples.

http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=HUzWAAAAEBAJ&dq=7800613

The patents filing date is Dec 2, 2004 and issue date is Sep 21, 2010

The patent claims all elements of small multiples adding the element of a multidimensional user interface window to manipulate the chart data. But this is not really adding anything as the nature of small multiples is multidimensional.

This is -opposed to Microsoft sparkline patent- a 100% valid patent and I wonder why nobody was opposing when Tableau Software applied for Small Multiples. I can see that is more fun to attack the "bad boys" (Microsoft) but to be fair we must face that also the good boys (Tableau Software) are at least as ruthless patenting everything as Microsoft is - if not worse.

I have seen this kind of visualization already in BI software called OnVision released in 1998, so there certainly is prior art.

Marcus

-- Marcus (email)


Sorry, I posted the wrong link. The correct link to the Tableau patent link is:

http://www.google.com/patents?q=7756907&btnG=Search+Patents

Marcus

-- Marcus (email)


Prior art (done by me) from 1999:

http://web.archive.org/web/19991127150331/http://www.quotetracker.com/index.htm

click on "Screen Shots"

-- mike medved (email)