Microsoft has begun rolling out a patch for its popular Word application that removes a little-used feature of the software in accordance with a recent court ruling. The patch, which Microsoft identifies as a "supplement release" for Office 2007, is required for users in the United States, and the software giant will be replacing retail versions of Office and Word 2007 to meet the requirements of the ruling.

Microsoft lost a patent infringement case to tiny i4i, a software development firm that created a solution for working with the XML markup language. Microsoft uses XML as the basis for newer versions of its Office-based document formats, and was ordered to pay i4i $290 million in damages in August. Microsoft appealed the case but the original decision was upheld earlier this month.

As part of the legal defeat, Microsoft must remove the offending code from Word. To address this, the company recently delivered the 2007 Microsoft Office Supplement Release (October 2009) to OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners, PC makers and system builders that ship Office 2007 (which includes Word 2007) to customers. According to Microsoft documentation, "after this patch is installed, Word will no longer read the Custom XML elements contained within DOCX, DOCM, or XML files. These files will continue to open, but any Custom XML elements will be removed. The ability to handle custom XML markup is typically used in association with automated server based processing of Word documents. Custom XML is not typically used by most end users of Word."

Microsoft is required to remove the offending code by January 11, 2010. And while some reports have histrionically shouted that the software giant would have to stop selling Word, Microsoft has in fact been preparing for this eventuality since the original ruling. "We have put the wheels in motion to remove this little-used feature from these products," Microsoft director of public affairs Kevin Kutz said recently. Microsoft also notes that the code is not present in the public beta version of Office 2010 and Word 2010; the company expects to ship the final versions of these products in mid-2010.

While the supplemental release is available only to PC makers and system builders, it's likely that Microsoft will deliver a similar patch directly to end users via Windows Update and Automatic Updates soon. That patch will be made available both for Word 2007, the current version of the product, and Word 2003, the previous version.