Microsoft Word saves “metadata” along with a document – extra information ranging from identification of authors and reviewers of a document to all text added and deleted in prior versions and revisions of the document. This assists in collaboration, but it can have unexpected side effects.

Here’s an article about a draft letter circulated by the California Attorney General proposing a new legal theory for attacking file sharing software. The letter proposes an unprecedented legal theory – characterizing file sharing software as a “dangerous product” and suggesting that developers should be subject to liability for deceptive trade practices because the software does not contain warnings that it can be used to violate the law.

The Word metadata reveals that the letter was either authored or reviewed by a senior vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America. It’s hardly surprising to find an industry manipulating governmental agencies, but the evidence of it usually doesn’t emerge quite so clearly.

Another example from the news last week: the SCO Group has been filing lawsuits against companies using Linux, alleging that Linux includes copyrighted Unix code owned by SCO. The tech community is deeply divided about whether the lawsuits have merit, but SCO is moving full speed ahead in the legal system. It chose a couple of big companies last week as test cases and filed lawsuits against Daimler-Chrysler and AutoZone.

The interesting discovery was in the Word metadata buried in the copy of the lawsuit circulated last week – showing that the defendant had been Bank of America until a few days before filing.

If you’ve got a Word document that’s been circulating for a while, try viewing the document under “original showing markup” or “final showing markup.” You might be surprised.

Microsoft has online information specifically aimed at lawyers producing electronic versions of documents during discovery in a lawsuit, with links to information about minimzing the metadata stored with a document. Office 2003 has a feature allowing the information to be permanently removed. And many offices are starting to circulate PDF files instead of Word documents to prevent alteration – and to prevent inadvertently giving away secrets.

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