Europe Nixes Software Patents

Europe will not officially allow developers to own patents on software, at least for the time being.

Europe will not officially allow developers to own patents on software, at least for the time being.

All European countries, with the exception of Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, voted against extending the current European patent system to cover software at the Diplomatic Conference to Revise the European Patent Convention which opened Monday in Munich.

But the software patent debate still rages on, and some feel that a clear-cut decision to allow or bar software patents would be more beneficial to Europe’s technology industry than the current fuzzy logic that surrounds the issue and allows companies to maneuver patents through the current law’s legal loopholes.

European law specifically forbids patents on computer software, but the European Patent Office is strongly in favor of changing that.

Patents can be granted for software that is an integral part of a new machine, if the software –- such as an operating system — controls the functions of that machine. So the EPO has granted more than 30,000 patents on a “method or device which includes programs.”

The results of Tuesday’s vote was cheered by free and open source software advocates as a victory, since the discussion over whether the European union will allow software patents will now be moved to the European Commission, the European Parliament, national governments and the general public.

But Nicolas Pettiaux, Belgian representative for the EuroLinux Alliance of software publishers and nonprofit organizations, warned that the vote “should not be interpreted as a vote against software patents, but rather as a vote to postpone any decision on this matter until the consultation launched by the European Commission is closed.”

According to Stéfane Fermigier of the Association Francophone des Utilisateurs de Linux et des Logiciels Libres (AFUL), the vote against patents is a definite step in the right direction, but a definite decision on software patents must be made soon.

“The General Directorate for Internal Market at the European Commission, which is in charge of the consultation, has approached the software patent issue with an ideological point of view,” Fermigier said.

“Both their interpretation of the law and their call for the consultation are obviously biased in favor of software patents. Furthermore, until very recently, they paid no attention to the economic effects and to other side effects of software patents, as they should have according to the Rome and Amsterdam Treaties.”

Fermigier agrees with Pettiaux that the battle is not yet won. “We are still very far from a decision to ban software patents in Europe,” he said.

Open source and free software advocates feel that software patents should be banned in Europe, believing that these patents, as they exist in the United States, tend to stifle innovation, create tremendous legal risks for small and medium enterprises and reduce the incentive for knowledge sharing.

Pettiaux said that future EuroLinux actions will be targeted at convincing the European Commission to take a balanced approach on software patents.

“As the EuroLinux Software Patent Horror Gallery shows, the European Patent Office is already granting many patents on pure software methods,” Pettiaux said. “Such kind of patents are then canceled by national courts in case of dispute. A clear clarification is still needed in Europe, either in favor of or against software patents.”

Author: Michelle Delio

News Service: Wired News


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