RealTime IT News

EU Patent Fight Comes to the Fore

An effort to stop software patents in the European Union (EU) got a boost this week with the launch of NoSoftwarePatents.com. Red Hat and MySQL AB are among the high-profile open source companies backing the effort.

The site, which is offered in 12 languages, is intended as a lobbying and public relations effort to stop software patents in Europe.

"Many governments and others spread misinformation about software patents and the directive, and our campaign will relentlessly debunk the untruths," Florian Muller, the site's campaign manager, said in a statement.

Software patents aren't technically allowed in Europe, according to the terms of the European Patent Convention. However they're being granted despite the convention. The EU Council in May announced an initiative to bring EU patent law inline with that of the United States. According to Muller, "the only major difference would be how a patent application is presented, not what is patentable."

Muller argued that patents are anti-competitive and stifle innovation, and that copyrights are a better way to protect intellectual property in software.

"Anyone who mistakenly believes that patents are the same as copyright will see that this campaign is supported by successful businesses who protect their software development investments on the basis of copyright law," he said.

MySQL AB CEO Merten Mickos described in an article how he believes software patents take power from the individual investor and puts it in the hands of those who have the most patents and the most lawyers.

"For the software industry to thrive and foster innovation, we need to say 'no' to software patents on a worldwide basis," Mickos wrote. "It is high time we do away with software patents once and for all, and get back to the business of innovation and open standards."

Mickos described the current patent situation as being similar to nuclear stockpiling.

"The giants of the industry have thousands of patents covering a very broad range of general algorithms. If you're writing software, you could be violating hundreds of patents without even knowing it," Mickos added. "The only solution is for companies to assemble their own retaliatory portfolio of patents that can be used to maintain a balance of terror."

Patent stockpiling to protect open source has been a theme that has been raised recently by both IBM and Novell . IBM has publicly stated that it would not use its patents to attack Linux. In 2003, IBM logged its eleventh consecutive year as being the leader in receiving U.S. patents with 3,415.

Novell with its European originated SUSE Linux distribution currently is not part of the NoSoftwarePatents.com effort.

"We're looking at this initiative now, and I can't comment at this point on whether we'll get involved," Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry told internetnews.com.

Last week, Novell issued a press release publicly committing to use its patent portfolio to protect its open source software offerings. The statement was, according to Lowry, global in scope and not limited to the United States. That said, Novell also has a "Statement on Proposed European Union Software Directive Changes" available on its Web site.

While the company notes that it "does not see the need for the proposed changes to the current system" (where software patents are not supposed to be allowed), it would nonetheless "be able to freely market its software offerings, whether closed or open source, in Europe and other jurisdictions that presently favor software patents."

Novell argues that its approach does not threaten open source, but rather supports innovation.

"Our approach is to protect customer choice, not threaten it, and support the innovation inherent in the open source model," Jack Messman chairman and CEO of Novell said in a statement. "With this policy, we're saying we'll use our patents to actively protect Novell's open source technologies against any third party asserting its patents. We will use our patents for the original purpose patents were established -- to encourage innovation -- not to shut down options for customers."