Software Patents & The Technology

by Niall Douglas in association with NamesFacesPlaces


This is the sixth in a series of articles about threats to our industry - not just to the IT contracting industry, but to any part of IT which is indigenous to Europe and most specifically the United Kingdom, which is in my opinion the most vulnerable of the IT industries within the EU.

This article along with others in this series explores the consequences of the draft UK implementation of the European Copyright Directive (2001/29/EC) if the draft were to pass into law as-is. Since the cut-off date for public commentary has passed, be prepared to lobby your MP to fight for amendments to the bill in the Commons sometime in Spring 2003.

Software Patents

There's already an article about the matter from my good self here and I don't intend to repeat myself. I do however want to show how the Copyright laws currently being made legal across Europe are in fact merely a plank of an overall plan to assert and maintain a suffocating control over Europe's IT industry.

Since software patents became "a good idea" in the mid-80's, US IT multinationals have been on a spree of accumulation ie; registering every possible implementation, algorithm and form of coding possible as having been invented by them even when in more than 80% of cases, they were clearly prior art (ie; invented by common usage and therefore don't belong to anyone). Even BT got in on the act by patenting the hyperlink ie; anything clickable on a web page.

These companies have thence used this armoury of patents to successfully extract royalties from other companies and in many cases, to smash competition by letting a competitor use a patented technology without realising and then suddenly suing for massive back-payments, thus forcing the competitor to either sell up or go bust. IBM, Microsoft and Amazon have all used this technique.

Way way back in 1991, the European IT industry successfully gained an exemption which made software patents illegal and unenforceable in the EU. Despite this, large multinationals have continued to file software patents with the European Patent Office because they believe this exemption will be overturned shortly.

With the vote of the next round of additions to the EU bought by powerful US multinationals, they are likely to be right. Strong campaigns mounted by the Dutch, French, German, Belgium & Swedish IT industries defeated a recent vote on the matter but it was very close.

It's all about control

As mentioned in the introduction to these articles, the EU IT industry is now the No. 1 competitor to US IT multinationals. Having become dominant in their home market, they are pushing to become globally dominant. The copyright laws assert many new controls over hitherto permitted activities, and the software patent laws do exactly the same to a far greater degree even still.

While I personally embrace anything which tends towards progress and improvement even at some cost of stability, I really do not like time, resources and effort being sucked up in pointless legal battles over who filed the claim to what idea first.

After all, in history, it has not been the person with the best ideas who has had success - it is the person who best applies ideas to the widest audience. This, in my view, it how life works and trying to schew the reality of life for corporate profiteering is doomed to failure - but it will be society as a whole which loses.

Niall Douglas
16th September 2002