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Torvalds Puts Name to EU Software Patent Dispute

Open source software gurus criticized a European Union (EU) council for attempting to add a software patent directive they say will stifle innovation and competition.

Alarmed that software creation will be patented and be thus rendered cost-prohibitive, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, MySQL author Michael Widenius and PHP programmer Rasmus Lerdorf said in a letter the plan is nothing but a recurring excuse the patent system has been using to grant patents on software ideas.

Torvalds and his peers wrote the letter ahead of a pending meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council, which they said this week will attempt to formally adopt what they call the "software patent directive." The authors described this as one that encompasses almost anything that a computer can possibly do.

The programmers argue the proposal is "dangerous to the economy at large" because it has the potential to stifle software innovation.

"At first sight, the patent appears to protect an inventor but the actual implications may be the opposite, dependent upon the field," the authors of the letter wrote. "Copyright serves software authors while patents potentially deprive them of their own independent creations."

"Copyright is fair because it is equally available to all. A software patent regime would establish the law of the strong, and ultimately create more injustice than justice."

The argument from Torvalds, Widenius and Lerdorf is not surprising. All three men have blazed trails in the burgeoning world of open source software, where source code is often shared freely among communities of users. Linux, MySQL and PHP form three of the four parts of a technology stack, which along with the Apache application server is known as "LAMP."

Software patents, the men argue, would stymie economic opportunities, especially in Europe, where they say the average cost of a patent is 30,000 to 50,000 Euros.

"For the sake of innovation and a competitive software market, we sincerely hope that the European Union will seize this opportunity to exclude software from patentability and gain a major competitive advantage in the information age," they said.

"We urge the governments of the EU member states, which are represented in the EU Council, to oppose the debateless adoption of the said proposal."

Torvalds and Co. are asking users to oppose the legalization of software patents in the EU by placing a link to the campaign NoSoftwarePatents, which launched in October and is supported by Red Hat, 1&1 and MySQL AB.