A Patently Sane Decision

This is the end of software innovation in Europe. Industry giants like Microsoft, Siemens, and Nokia will crumble, because evil open source hackers will ruthlessly steal and distribute their grand ideas without properly reimbursing those who are the rightful creators of what makes the software universe work.

At least that is what those major companies wanted to make the members of the European Parliament believe. However, despite what has been the most intense lobbying in the history of the EU so far, the MEPs made a sane decision yesterday by voting against the european software patent directive with an overwhelming majority of 648 to 18. If you look closely at what the Software Majors deem patent-worthy, it is painfully obvious that yesterday was a great day for small and medium software foundries, as well as open source developers, in Europe.

To be frank, I don’t oppose software patents per se. I could see how patenting an algorithm like, say, RSA encryption may appear reasonable due to the time, energy, and money invested in the development of such an algorithm by its inventors. The thing that really bothers me, though, is that the major software companies’ idea of what warrants patentability is just patently absurd (sorry…). Just take Microsoft’s attempt to patent the double-click, or British Telecom’s patent on hyperlinks.

It’s these patents for vastly generic ideas and procedures that, if fully enforced, would not only provide some nice cash flow to the patent holders. By patenting overly simplistic algorithms, these patents could also easily be abused by the big software makers with enough cash for legal battles to shut off small and medium sized software makers and open source developers by requiring them to spend much more time (and, thus, money) on patent research and possible lawsuits than on simply coding great software. As mentioned above, this does not mean that developers should not be able to protect their creations in some way. But that’s where plain and simple copyrighting comes in, of course.

Richard Stallman has written a fascinating and thought-provoking article exactly about what the difference is between patents and copyright. Demonstrating this difference via novels instead of resorting to the obvious example of some kind of technology, Stallman makes it easy even for non-techies to grasp just how massive the implications of software patents can be. Or — at least in Europe — how massive they could have been, had the EP voted differently yesterday.

Although the European Parliament’s decision does not mean that there never will be any software-related patents in Europe in the future, at least for the time being, the MEPs have demonstrated that sane thinking can prevail — even among politicians.

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