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UK Patent Office: Software Patents Pose No Threat to Open Source, But Should Be Limited

Mar 16, 2001, 14:28 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Michael Hall)

By Michael Hall, LinuxToday

While appearing to dismiss the concerns of advocates who have characterized software patents as a threat to Open Source software, a consultation from the UK Patent Office and a related statement from UK "e-minister" Patricia Hewitt argue that copyright protection ought to be adequate for most "non-technological innovation" in software.

The consultation, entitled 'Should Patents be Granted for Computer Software or Ways of Doing Business?', addressed the concerns of Open Source advocates saying:

"The Government does not ... accept the view -- asserted by some respondents -- that Open Source software is threatened by the existing extent of patentability. This seems to fly in the face of the facts, notably that during the last decade Open Source software has flourished."

Despite this, the consultation concluded that patents should apply primarily to software that provides "technological innovations" (such as machine manufacture) and not patents for strictly software-related innovations, such as grammar checkers in a word processors. It also slammed business method patents, such as Amazon's 'One Click Shopping', as unsupportable, arguing that there's been nol lack of innovation in on-line business methods nor proof from advocates that patents would increase this.

The press release, included below, promised fast action on establishing the boundaries of software patentability in conjunction with other members of the Eurpean Community.

The complete statement from Hewitt:

Patents for Internet Trading and Computer Software - Hewitt
E-Minister Patricia Hewitt today announced the Government's decision on patents to protect computer programs and internet trading methods.

Today's announcement follows the recent consultation "Should Patents Be Granted for Computer Software or Ways of Doing Business?". The key conclusions include:

  • there should be no significant change to the patentability of software;
  • the law is not clear enough. Urgent European action to clarify is needed;
  • business methods should remain unpatentable.

Ms Hewitt said:

"Some people who responded to our consultation favour making it easier to patent software and others see patents as a threat to development of new software.

"Our key principle is that patents should be for technological innovations. So a program for a new machine tool should be patentable but a non-technological innovation, such as grammar-checking software for a word-processor, should not be.

"The majority of those who responded agree with the Government and oppose patents for ways of doing business on the internet."

Consumer Affairs Minister Dr Kim Howells said:

"The patent system is there to stimulate innovation and benefit the consumer. This is the test we have applied to determine what should, and should not, be patentable in the fields of computer software and ways of doing business.

"Patent law is harmonized under the European Patent Convention, and we shall be recommending the conclusions we have reached to our European partners. The European Commission is currently evaluating its own consultation on software patents, and we shall be pressing them for an early Directive which embodies our conclusions, and with which the Convention can then be aligned.

"In particular we shall press for clarification of European patent law to put an end to uncertainty about what software can and cannot be patented. The consultation showed that at present there is confusion, and that that is damaging."

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