EU software patent fight rages in Dublin
The proposed EU directive that would lay down the rules for the patenting of computer-implemented inventions is once again creating a storm.
A number of Irish companies met on Thursday with the Dail Committee on European Affairs to discuss the proposed patenting law. The Computer-Implemented Inventions directive, brought in to harmonise existing patent legislation, aims to remove barriers to trade in patented products within the EU.
In fact, the proposed law has been a matter of intense argument -- and public demonstrations -- with detractors saying the original form of the directive would stifle software R&D among small businesses. Those in favour of early drafts of the law, a list that includes many large corporations, argue that tighter patent laws are necessary to protect innovation.
At this point, the directive has been amended several times by the European Parliament, with the latest version weighted against the interests of groups favouring more rigorous patent laws. Thursday's Dail Committee meeting is the most recent of many moves by the Irish government aimed at brokering a deal between the two sides before Ireland's EU Presidency comes to an end.
"No directive [of any kind] would be better than the one the European Parliament is proposing," according to Brian Caulfield, Trinity Venture Capital investment director and chair of the ICT Ireland subcommittee on intellectual property management. Without the Irish amendment, the proposed law would undermine "a common business model of the ICT sector and could result in a significant reduction in investment within the EU," he said. "This is a very serious this issue," he added.
In September 2003, members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to remove portions of the proposed law that would offer patent protections to software and software-based services. Amazon.com's famous "one-click" shopping technology has been widely used as an example of an invention that might not be eligible for a patent under European law.
The Irish government has been proactive and has created a compromise text that eliminates the key amendments that could create a situation in which existing patent portfolios are legally un-enforceable while also protecting intellectual property, added Caulfield.
Almost without exception early stage companies use patents as part of their ability to stand up to bigger companies and get value from their R&D, Caulfield said. "There is an unusual level of agreement across the industry that the [European] Parliament text should not be adopted," according to the venture capitalist.
Developing ideas in a cave
"With patenting, the use of the idea is what causes an infringement," said Ciaran O'Riordan, chairman of the Irish Free Software Organisation (IFSO). "If you go into a cave with a laptop and independently develop an idea, you may still be breaking the law," he said.
The ability for entities to purchase exclusive rights to the use of an idea could have severe negative affect on the Irish software industry and on free software, according to O'Riordan. "This version of the directive, as amended during the democratic phase of the legislative process in the European Parliament, will remove legal uncertainty from the process," he said.
"The original vote on the directive was deferred three times in the Parliament because MEPs didn't have enough information about this incredibly technical and legal field," added O'Riordan. "Eventually the MEPs were happy enough and had the vote. All 11 of the Irish MEPs that voted approved of the amendments," he said.
If software ideas become patentable, compatibility, and therefore competition, will become illegal, according to both the IFSO and parent organisation the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which was founded 1985 to promote computer users' right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. Cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Computer Science Gerald Sussman are among the technology luminaries on the board of the FSF.
Both the Irish Free Software Organisation and the Free Software Foundation Europe have endorsed an action week from 10 May to 14 May to inform citizens, economy and politics about the possible harmful consequences of adopting software patents.
The Irish government's proposed text for the controversial computer-implemented inventions directive is to be examined at the 17 May meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council.