Torvalds comes out against E.U. patent directive

Three prominent open source software developers, including Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, have issued a statement urging the European Union Council to reject proposed legislation that would codify the practice of granting software patents in the E.U.

In the statement, issued Tuesday, the three developers argued that the legislation, called the software patent directive, would be harmful to the European economy. They argue that copyright law rather than patent law is the best way to protect software innovations.

Michael Widenius, a creator of the MySQL database, and Rasmus Lerdorf, the author of the PHP Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) scripting language also endorsed the statement.

The patent directive is ill-advised because it unnecessarily broadens the area that could be governed by patents, Torvalds wrote in an e-mail interview. “It’s not even just about software patents,” he said. “Patents on ideas are wrong, whether in software or in business. You should patent some concrete machinery, not a way of doing things.”

Open source software is not any more likely to infringe on software patents than is proprietary software, he said. But patent licenses can be incompatible with open source software licenses and software patents themselves put a special burden on open source developers, who are often independent contributors, often without the financial resources to fight off spurious patent claims, he said. “Clearly the open source ‘way of life’ is much less amenable to software patents than proprietary software is,” he said.

The statement was posted on the Web site, which was launched last month to advocate against software patents. The site has received financial support from software vendors Red Hat Inc. and MySQL AB, as well as Germany-based Internet service provider 1&1 Internet AG.

With the software patent directive, the E.U. has attempted to establish an overarching patent standard for computer-implemented inventions, including but not limited to software, and bring into line the myriad interpretations given to patent law by different European national courts. The E.U.’s executive body, the European Commission, submitted the directive, “Patentability of Computer-implemented Inventions,” to the European Parliament, one of the E.U.’s legislative arms, in February 2002. The Parliament, whose members are directly elected, added amendments to the directive that would have barred the patenting of software. However, in May the E.U.’s other legislative arm, the Council of Ministers, whose members are politicians from E.U. member states’ national governments, narrowly passed its own version of the directive that reintroduced software patenting.

That version of the directive is awaiting final approval from the Council, which is expected either late this month or early in December, before the proposed legislation goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading.

Last week, however, the Polish government withdrew its support of the legislation, a move that could make it impossible for the Council to muster the votes required to approve the directive, according to Florian Mueller, an independent software developer and campaign manager for hopes to pressure European politicians to reconsider their support of software patents, Mueller said. “We have clear indications that there are discussions going on between the member countries after Poland announced its decision last week,” he said. “We think it’s important to make it the public … how we view this.”

The group’s statement can be found here:

— With files from Laura Rohde and Przemyslaw Gamdzyk

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