Plans to introduce European-wide laws on computer software patents have caused controversy because of the impact they could have on the cost and availability of commercial and open-source software. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates put the case rather more strongly, describing opponents of the legislation as ‘modern-day sort of communists’ who want to damage industrial innovation.
The software Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions aims to clarify existing European laws on patenting software, but could create legal hurdles for IT departments wanting to develop their own software. In the worst-case scenario, the patents could force smaller suppliers and open-source specialists out of business, restricting competition and the choice of software available to users.
To be patented, software has to have a ‘technical application’. This basically means that a company that develops software to control a DVD recorder can patent it, as controlling a DVD recorder is a technical application. However, a company that develops software to automate an accounting system would not be granted a patent. This is because accounting systems are regarded as a business process rather than a technical application. The whole process is governed by European Patent Convention, an international treaty which has so far been implemented in slightly different ways in each country.
The bill has sparked a debate on whether the EU should follow the US model of granting patents to Internet business methods, such as online bookseller Amazon’s ‘one-click shopping,’ or instead restrict patents for computer software. Poland, a large EU member whose backing is crucial for the adoption of the proposed rules, told Reuters last week that it was not ready to back the legislation amid fears it could open the door to the patenting of pure computer software.
The major benefits of the bill is that it would provide European companies with protection for their ideas and encourage innovation, create a level playing-field for patents across all European countries, and clarify existing patent laws, rather than introducing major changes. However, small suppliers will not have enough financial muscle to obtain and enforce patents, thereby reducing choice for IT departments. It could also restrict the availability and functions of open source software, and IT departments may have to conduct patent searches to make sure they are not infringing rights. The saga continues, with adoption of the bill now scheduled for next week.