Activists warn of rerun of Euro software patent fight

Opponents of attempts to allow software to be patented in theEuropean Union warned Monday that new consultations on an E.U.-widegeneral patent could be used to reintroduce software patentsthrough the back door.

Speaking at a panel discussion on implications of a new attempt bythe European Commission to overhaul the E.U.’s patent system, thepresident of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure(FFII) warned that such a review could lead to software patents.”If you take the case law of the EPO (European Patent Office) andapply it across the board, that means allowing software patents,”said Pieter Hintjens, who is also founder and managing director ofa Belgian software company, iMatix.

Hintjens said that, from his contacts with the chief executiveofficers of small and medium-size businesses, it was clear they didnot like and did not trust software patents. He called patents in atechnology-driven sector “obscene.” He cited a patent held by acompany in Belgium called All is Blue which covered the managementof e-mail and address data in response to text messages as anexample of a “trivial” patent where the company was trying to earnmoney from exploiting its patent rights.

In February, the European Commission, which drafts laws for the25-member bloc, launched a new round of public consultations on theE.U.’s patent system to find out from industry and interest groupswhat changes were needed to the regime to make it easier to use.The fresh consultations followed a deadlock over setting up anE.U.-wide “community patent” and the rejection by members of theEuropean Parliament last July of the so-called “software patentsdirective”, a piece of legislation on the patentability of computerprograms implanted in a range of other technologies such as washingmachines or mobile phones.

However, Hintjen’s claims were contested by a representative of arange of international IT companies. “The consultations on patentsare not a reinvention of the C.I.I. [computer-implementedinventions] Directive. It is not an initiative to revive the debateon one area of patent law”, said Francisco Mingorance, director ofpublic policy for the Business Software Alliance (BSA). BSA’smembers include 25 international companies including IBM Corp.,Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett-PackardCo., Intel Corp., SAP AG, Symantec Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. aswell as 30 smaller European software developers.

Mingorance pointed out that in the questionnaire the Commission hadprepared as part of the consultation, it had asked for responses tofour options, one of which was a new push for a community patent.Other options included doing nothing to change the current systemor tackling problems with the current regime through otherapproaches. This included all member states signing up to theLondon agreement which would reduce the number of languages patentapplications had to be filed in to to three: English, French andGerman, Mingorance said.

The BSA is in favor of a more cost-effective and accessible patentsystem, he said. In its submission to the Commission as part of theconsultation, the BSA might back a new bid for a community patent,he said, adding that he doubted whether the member states wouldaccept a new proposal after six years of discussions. He said thatother approaches such as ratifying the London agreement orapproving the European Patent Litigation Agreement might achievethe goals of making the E.U. patent system cheaper to use. He citedfigures from the European Patent Office which showed that the costof filing a patent application in the E.U. is

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