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MIT Technology Review

Europe Reconsiders Software Patents

The European Commission and European Parliament are busy considering reforms of the European Union’s patent system, designed to to harmonize the patent laws of the 25 member states. A big question on their agenda: whether software should be patentable. This…

The European Commission and European Parliament are busy considering reforms of the European Union’s patent system, designed to to harmonize the patent laws of the 25 member states. A big question on their agenda: whether software should be patentable. This bugaboo has plagued the US for well over a decade, and now the EU is facing it head on. A nice story in The Guardian lays out many of the strongest arguments, pro and con.

Under current EU law, passed in 1973, software cannot be patented. However, the European Patent Office interpreted a 1986 “clarification” to allow such patents, and since then, around 30,000 software patents have been issued. The Guardian comes across as pretty much against, arguing clearly that software patents amount to patents on ideas rather than concrete inventions. And in software development, patents on ideas can actually stymie progress as developers have to step increasingly carefully to make sure complex programs don’t include another programmer’s patented idea.

One example from the Guardian story: Amazon.com’s European Gift Ordering Patent. If you don’t know the address of a person to whom you want to send a gift, Amazon has a solution, to which it now holds the exclusive right in Europe for the next 20 years. What is it? Amazon sends the recipient an email asking for her address. That’s it. The patent is not on the software code that does this, or the look of the website–all of which is covered by copyright, in the EU and the US. No, the patent gives Amazon the exclusive right to send an email to the recipient to ask for her address, and anyone who wants to build a system to do that must pay Amazon royalties.

Pretty nifty, huh?