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vol. 2, no. 1
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When propaganda replaces PR and the media is used for misinformation: Tim Oake's perspective on the European technology patents debate

The wheels of pan-European politics and bureaucracy grind painfully slowly. It was three years ago that the European Commission decided that the rules of the European Patent Convention needed to be updated in the area of computer-implemented inventions. The basis for doing so was their anxiety to more clearly differentiate patentability regulations and standard practice in Europe from that in the U.S., where patents tend to be granted for virtually anything, including business models.

A key objective of the original proposal was to ensure that it would not be possible to patent pure software in Europe. Oblivious to the irony, the harder core of the Open Source movement decided to hijack the EC’s proposal and attempt to change it into a directive to disallow patents on any inventions that depend on software. This has resulted in an increasingly aggressive struggle between them and European high-tech firms being played out in the media and governmental lobbies that is due to be decided in the European Parliament this summer.

I’ve always been a supporter of the Open Source movement. As a die-hard Apple fan, I was delighted when OS X arrived and the company began to give its support to it. Like them, I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft’s de facto monopoly and I agree with their aim that pure software should not be patentable. But by misleading politicians and the media into believing that the computer-implemented inventions directive is actually all about software patents, organizations like the ‘Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure’ (FFII) and ‘No Software Patents’ are not only threatening European innovation, its companies’ competitiveness and thousands of jobs. They’re also playing right into the hands of those who want pure software to be patentable.

In the current disjointed European patent system, some national patent offices, such as the UK's, tend to approve patents in a much looser way than others, such as Germany's. The current proposal seeks to harmonize and codify the rules so that patents for computer-implemented inventions will only be allowed under one set of stricter circumstances. Computers are literally everywhere nowadays – in our cars, hi-fi systems, TVs, domestic appliances and telephones, for example. Even if these computers are tiny, they depend on embedded software to do their work.

Disallowing patents on any product that depends on some software would mean patents on all these products would no longer be allowed or enforceable. Any U.S. or Asian predator who likes the look of what a European start-up has spent time and money in developing will be able to appropriate the technology and use it in its own products without having to face any legal consequences. No wonder European industry is fighting back – see the EICTA and ‘Patents4innovation’ sites.

Patents don’t give anyone a product monopoly, they ensure that those who’ve invested in innovation are appropriately rewarded. As for open source software, it’s thriving everywhere – even in the States. If patentability threatens it, how can the FFII and others explain this? Should they manage to persuade enough MEPs to scuttle the current proposal at its second reading, it’s highly unlikely that the Commission will create another that disallows all patents on computer-related inventions. It’s much more likely that there would be no directive at all, and patents will continue to be granted as they are today. In the absence of clear guidelines, doubtless some patent offices will then allow patents on pure software. The only option then for those who wish to object will be expensive court procedures – is this really what they want?

Our fourth Client & Partner Briefing looked at the communication of corporate citizenship - the value in values.

In the third Client & Partner Briefing we discussed the blogging phenomenon and the rise of the corporate weblog.

The second Client & Partner Briefing presented our views on why 80% of CRM projects have failed in the Netherlands.

Our first Client & Partner Briefing addressed the thorny question of whether or when -ise or -ize word endings should be used.

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