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Software Patents

Friday 12 December 2003, by Arthur Lutz

The adventure is set in Europe, it has a dark beginning and a happy ending, or is it a happy middle bit? The subject is the patenting of software. So far, software is being used under copyright laws. European legislators now want it to rule in the happy land of patents. And that is a grave danger to this extremely important production/art/tool.

The ability of patenting computer software, means that the simplest mecanisms used by software (what you click on when you use your computer) can have its use restricted. It would render void the use of copyright (currently used for software). This type of evolution would mean that as you could previously patent a mousetrap you could now patent any "means of trapping mamals". Do you get the gist?

A list of dump yet dangerous patents that have emerged from this approach to software can be found here. Just a few example we like : the icon of a "shopping cart" in ecommerce, changing the color of the mouse arrow when on a similar color, upgrading software using the internet, etc...

So how does this story go in Europe? It already exists in the US so obviously Europe and the industrial lobby is pretty keen to get even. The EPO - European Patent Organisation, illegaly is accepting more than 30 000 software patents even before any kind of legislation allows it. The majority of these are deposited by American companies. The text makes its way to European deputies with a happy following mass of lobbyest (the principal way the European parliament works...). The word gets around in the "free software" community, and being threatenned as it was, it rose to confront the future legislation. Letters are sent, petitions are set up, protests appear on the web and on the streets, organisations representatives go to brussels to have a word with deputies. The idea of the danger to liberties slowly makes its way in the minds. A small number of policital parties openly take sides, such as the Green Party.

You could now say : "Maybe small enterprise and individuals can benefit of this system for their inventions in software". Think again : the average cost of patent in Europe amounts to 29800 euros.

So how does is this a danger to all, an infrigement of personnal liberties? This is a primordial question in this debate, particularly since not many people care about computer, or are familiar with the concept of "free software", free as in "speech" not "beer". It will create monopolies and control of information for the corporations, who are the only ones that have enough economical weight to use the patenting system. That means that they will be able to control how the way the computer systems that manage your banks, your payroll, your social security, your medical coverage, your news feed, your entertainment, etc...

Former socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard says in an article published in Liberation (link) that it is a directive that has had almost the most lobbying done for, emails, letters and petitions, industrial pressures, and citizen pressure. And that this has massivelly influenced the decisions. This effect is present because computer people are hooked up to the internet even before having breakfast. This citizen’s participation to a democratic procedure sets this accomplishment even higher. We all know that activist networks have greatly benefited from the new communication medium that is the internet. And we see everyday initiatives that tend to increase a citizen approach of politics with this ease of communication. And according to this example, the politics seem to be listenning.

Europe is not a "power". It is an integrated space governed by law. It has the size of make world law. On an essential problem that is, for a half billion citizens, to be able to use freely all the ressources of the computer language without depending on the global control of a few multinationals, Europe has just shown that it can be a major organisation and that it can defend democracy.

I’m not as pro-Europe as this extract might seem, but I think that we should cherish the little good news that we have as far as the people’s struggles is concerned, instead of always being driven by contestation and criticism. To divert a commercial slogan : "It’s a sprig of goodness in a world of shit"

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