Wednesday, 15 June 2011

No escape from software patents

An impassioned plea for software to be made patentable, included in this report from ZDnet of a conference organised by the Westminster Legal Forum (never heard of it before). It's John Mitchell, the chairman of the SME Innovation Alliance, who's been heard on this subject before and whose position I find it hard to understand. Patents, a fortiori software patents, are playthings for big business: they enable them (should they wish to do so - and I don't mean to imply that they always do) to bully small businesses. Worse still, they lead to the worst excesses of trollery and it's small businesses that suffer from that rather than the large ones - though they are certainly not immune.

Mr Mitchell compares software to materials, like wood and paper, from which inventions may be made. That in itself does not justify allowing patents for it: no more than it justifies patents for wood or paper. What patents can rightly be granted for are the inventions that are made using the software. And that's exactly what the UK and European patent systems strive to do, without crossing the line and granting patents for pure software (which as one comment on the ZDnet story points out is nothing but mathematics). The trouble is that it's a difficult boundary to map, and the UK Patent Office and the EPO have drawn it in slightly different places. A problem, but not the problem that people seem to be arguing about. Both systems seem to me to look for a technical effect that lies outside the fields excluded from patentability by the relevant legislation, although they express this search in different ways. And, excluding a few die-hard anti-patent lobbyists (but a growing number: software and business methods patents bring the whole patent system into disrepute), that seems to be the attitude of most people, outside the USA at least. Including Marty Goetz, another commenter on the ZDnet story, and probably Mr Mitchell too. And certainly Prof Hargreaves, whose recommendations on this point seem spot on.

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