In January, 2011, Edgar Online was issued patent US7877678, which is essentially a patent on an excel plugin. I know that prior art exists, as I've used similar excel plugins for years, including Bloomberg's and FactSet's excel plugins. The fact that Edgar Online's patent is XBRL-based does not make it patentable, in my view. I am not a patent expert, so I invite someone with more knowledge of patents to investigate this patent further (as well as the myriad of other XBRL patents, including this one by RR Donnelley, which incorporates Edgar Online's and seems to try to broaden the patent beyond an Excel plugin, and this one by Rivet Software).
Background on the patent and prior art:
Edgar Online was issued patent US7877678, which is essentially a patent on an excel plugin. To my knowledge, Microsoft has allowed external excel plugins since Excel was introduced way back when. These plugins populate a spreadsheet with financial data (though their plugins predate XBRL, it is financial data nonetheless and the end-user wouldn't notice the difference). The claim by Edgar Online (now RR Donnelly) is that since the data fed to the Excel plugin is XBRL, that essentially makes the plugin patentable. Whether or not the backend is the actual XBRL file, a database, or a webservice makes no difference, in my view.
Background on XBRL:
XBRL is a way for companies to render financial data (e.g. it's essentially a company's annual report in XML format, for instance, here's Google's financials in XBRL format). XBRL is quickly becoming a worldwide standard. The U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (the SEC) recently required all public companies to report their financial data in XBRL format. The U.S. taxpayer has spent a large amount of taxpayer money for the SEC to plan and implement XBRL. Because of it's complexity, early software providers have filed lots of patents. Don't let the shear number of patents fool you: XBRL is an open standard and is simply a complex form of XML, which is also an open format.
Background of Edgar Online/RR Donnelley:
In August, 2012 RR Donnelly bought Edgar Online. Edgar Online and RR Donnelly each (from very early on) enable companies to turn ordinary financial data into "tagged" XBRL data and file that report with the SEC. RR Donnelly, Edgar Online, Rivet Software, among others, charge a lot for this service. On the other side is the rendering of the financial data. Edgar Online (and many others) also provides financial data for customers and rendering of financial data (and they charge a hefty price).
Whether it's the creation or rendering of the XBRL data, these companies have a huge incentive to file as many patents as possible to protect their revenue streams. The entire purpose of the SEC implementing XBRL data was to bring down the cost of financial data and let average Joe Investor have access to interactive data for a low (or $0) cost. These (ridiculous) patents stand in the way of that goal.