2010-01-06: Stop Software Patents Petition

Posted at 2010-01-06 10:16:46 by SHD

The EU currently does not recognise software patents. They are being granted, but (as of yet) not legally enforceable. There is really no need for them either, as software is already protected through copyright laws. There is a petition designed to let our European legislators know we do not want to make the mistakes the USA have made in adopting software patents. I have signed the petition and would encourage you to do the same. Here's why.

stopsoftwarepatents.eu petition banner

Those copyright laws, having been written for different forms of media, such as books and movies, needed some adjustment for computers and other digital devices. When a computer loads a program from your hard drive to actually run it, it is technically making a copy of that program. That is a necessary step in the regular operation of a computer. Such copying was originally not legal under the law. Completely ridiculous to any sane person (i.e. anybody except lawyers). Those laws have now been changed to take this into account and software enjoys copyright protection as though it were a work of art, and who's to say that it isn't one, albeit of a different form?

So far, so good. Although some people think software shouldn't even be copyrighted, I believe programmers should have the right to get the recognition and also financial compensation for their labour. If anybody wishes to give away the software they have written, they of course should also have the right to do so, by releasing it as freeware, donating it to the public domain or by using any of the various open source licenses.

Software patents, on the other hand, apply not only to entire products, but also seem to be granted to very small aspects of computer programs. In many cases, these are processes, algorithms and designs that should be obvious to any programmer worth his salt, as they are trivial. For example, Japanese company Matsushita has a patent for the idea that a user can click an icon on a toolbar which then changes the mouse cursor to a "help" icon, which can then be used to get context-sensitive help (i.e. a tooltip) for other icons in the toolbar. Here's an article about that patent, in Japanese, although the pictures are obvious enough. That is a ridiculously small aspect of a program and something that anybody could have come up with, and I'm sure many have before the Matsushita people did (remember the "?" button in the window frame from Windows 95). Other examples are Amazon's infamous 1-click ordering patent.

Patents were intended to allow inventors to be able to protect their inventions, for a limited amount of time, from being duplicated by others so they could profit from those inventions. This in turn would serve as an incentive to inventors and thus stimulate innovation. In the physical world, this makes sense. In the virtual world, however, many and indeed most of the "things" that are patented aren't really things at all, but trivial aspects of a larger program's operation. Sure, many of them are good ideas and they serve to make the user experience a better one, but I don't consider them worthy of a patent. This does not encourage innovation, but stifles it. Even if the patents are non-obvious, they either make it difficult to provide the optimal experience to the users or seriously limit the interoperability that is required to use a computer efficiently (arguably also part of that optimal user experience). Examples are the infamous Eolas patent on browser plugins and Microsoft's FAT patent. Both those patents have been rejected at one time and then been reinstated later on. It is now virtually impossible to write a program or website, even if you write it entirely from scratch, and be sure it doesn't infringe on some obscure patent from some company. That company may be a large one, such as IBM or Microsoft, or a small, virtually unknown one that exists only to sue others for infringing on its patents.

Currently, such patent trolls have nothing to work with here in the EU and it makes programmers' lives much easier. I wish the European legislators learn from the mistakes that the USA have made and not let the stupidity of software patents cross the Atlantic. The provision for software patents was the main reason I voted "NO" to the originally proposed EU constitution and I care enough to think it worth repeating. Thus, I would encourage anybody who reads this to sign the petition and help remind our legislators not to be idiots.

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