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The European Union parliament is set to vote Wednesday on the issue of software patents. From what I have been following in the English speaking news and the–admittedly biased–portals at the FFII and EFF, this is going to be a very close vote. There have been a whole raft of amendments proposed–some good, some bad–and a wide range of political maneuvers and intrigues. Science, small business and technical organizations have been weighing in with opinions, most opposed to software and business patents. The original proposal was Drafted for the European Union by the BSA a predominantly US organization of the major software publishers–e.g. Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Inuit. Interestingly the BSA’s European Policy page does not mention patents at all, only their support of strong uniform copyright protection for software across Europe.
So why should you care? Especially if you’re in the U.S.? A look at the patent situation in the United States for an example of how “well” software patents work. Eolas v Microsoft (local links below) is a prime example. Software innovation is rapid and incremental. It is practiced as efficiently by small teams and independent programmers as it is by large corporations. Anyone may obtain the skills needed to practice programming art through self-study or generally available public and private institutions. Beyond any educational expense and the cost of a computer, there are no other costs to begin. In fact the direct roots of most of todays highly successful programs and web sites began as college projects or after school projects in the dorms, e.g. Yahoo, Google, Real Audio, web browsers (all of them). The sheer number of software patents that exist has become a problem for new developers as almost any new software is bound to infringe on some patent, or at least could be argued to infringe–which is enough to create a legal issue. That software patents actually impede new development in the field puts them squarely against the intent of patents–to promote new development through limited monopolies granted in exchange for public disclosure.
The current global problem with patents (indeed all intellectual property rights) is the disparity between different nations. The issues seen in the US should be enough warning to other nations that software patents should not be adopted worldwide, but rather that efforts need to be made to eliminate software patents in the United States. In fact the adoption of software patents and business methods patents in the EU goes directly against the interests of EU citizens and companies–business method and software patents have a 20 year history in the United States whereas in the EU and it’s member states they have not been allowed, recognizing them at this time will only lead to a larger amount of EU citizens and companies having to pay licenses and legal costs to United States companies, even when those EU firms only operate with the EU borders. This will place the European software industry at a severe disadvantage. It flies in the face of the EU’s goal “to become the most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world.”
So why would the EU seek to enact software and business method patents, if they clearly do not support EU industry and goals? One clue might be that the original proposal was prepared from a proposal created by the BSA, an alliance of major software companies most of which are headquartered–as is the BSA– in the United States. It is in their interest to expand the patent system of the United States around the world, and if they can bring the EU in line with the United States, how hard will it be to have WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) enact a more globally unified patent system based largely on the policies of the US and the EU. The BSA member companies are large–many are “global” companies–with large patent portfolios in the United States. The BSA and it’s member companies are well versed in political lobbying in the United States…My comments on Eolas v Microsoft: