It was five years ago today... ...that the campaign began against EU moves to extend patent law to software. For a little while last year the anti-software patent lobby looked like it had the upper hand, after the European Parliament voted for very strict guidlines on what could be patented. As we know now, this was not to last. The current form of the Directive is somewhat open to interpretation.
By John Lettice
Published Monday 21st June 1999 13:03 GMT
The EU's current plans to extend patent law to software has been attacked by the EuroLinux Alliance, which points out that current European patent law is already being abused by major companies. The net effect of the continuation of this abuse, or of new laws applying patents to software, will be to make life practically impossible for smaller software developers. The subject is due to come up on Thursday at the Intellectual Property Conference in Paris, where moving to a US-style patent model will be discussed.
According to the Alliance, although software isn't patentable in Europe under the Munich Convention, the European Patent Office (EPO) has been granting patents which can be used to protect programming techniques, computer programmes and software. This is happening because of a loophole in the Munich Convention which allows industrial inventions based on innovative programming techniques to be patented. Says the Alliance: "Software Patents granted by the EPO to protect programming techniques were very few ten years ago and were mainly used by large industrial corporations to protect, for example, computerised oil exploration techniques."
But in the intervening period the EPO has come under increasing pressure from companies trying to patent what they can already patent in the US, where anything "useful and non obvious" can be patented. A recent IBM application shows that "the EPO is now used to grant patents on extremely elementary, if not obvious, programming techniques."
The EU is currently considering removing computer programs from the exceptions list of the Munich Convention, and this would effectively open the floodgates. "It would be possible to use patents to get a monopoly on the use of a business method or an electronic commerce method by patenting as such its implementation in a program for computers," says the Alliance, which has assembled a group of ten industry luminaries, including Tim Berners-Lee, to lobby against the change. It is also now possible to sign a letter to the EU Competition Commissioner, opposing software patents here.
The Directive is not yet law: it must pass its second reading in the European Parliament. Changes are harder, but not impossible, to introduce at this stage. If you feel strongly about this, contact your MEP. ®