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Free software guru damns Euro software patent plans

Don't make the same mistake as the US, warns Stallman

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Richard Stallman, free software proponent and founder of the creator of the recursively named GNU open source licence, has slammed plans by the European Patent Office to extend Euro patent law to software. Stallman's beef centres on the impact of such a measure on free software, but it applies equally to commercial development, whether that's full-scale off-the-shelf stuff or individuals' attempts to make a buck or two out of shareware. According to Stallman, the European Patent Office wants to introduce into EU law similar coverage of elementary software processes. That allows an individual or organisation to patent techniques, such as encoding a digital music file or compressing an image. Developing a specific algorithm and patenting that isn't the issue -- other programmers can write alternative methods of producing the same result. However, patenting a process can prevent anyone from even attempting to devise an alternative. Stallman cites Unisys' ownership of a patent on a compression algorithm used to generate GIF images. Unisys demands a royalty, and shareware and other authors have to pay that fee -- usually by charging the user more -- or face legal action. US developers of free MP3 encoders were forced to cough up royalties, even though MP3 is a global standard. European developers, because of the current state of legislation here, were not affected, Stallman said. The motion to introduce software patents into Europe is due to be debated on 24 and 25 June, but given the apparent lack of investigation into whether the idea is a good one or not, the pro-introduction argument seems likely to win the day. The EU's plan derives from its desire to harmonise and modernise individual nations' patent law into pan-European legislation. It's a worthwhile goal, as is the Union's desire to protect the intellectual property of member states' businesses. That protection includes "a proposal for a Directive to harmonise the conditions for the patentability of inventions related to computer programs... The proposal, to be presented before the Summer of 1999, would harmonise national rules and practices to the extent necessary to ensure that innovative software companies can obtain effective patent protection for their inventions in all Member States. Currently, this is not possible because of divergent approaches in different Member States". Stallman, for one, reckons much of the EU's plan comes from pressure from multinational companies with large numbers of software patents under their belts. Still, many of the software patent infringement cases brought in the US come from small companies who have filed patents but never exploited them until an alleged infringer comes along with enough revenue to make legal action pay off. Stallman is encouraging European software users and developers to voice their concerns and write to Euro officials, via the Free Patents Web site. Europe's patent law probably does need bringing up to date, but that process needs to take into account software that will not make a profit, ensure that patents can only be used by those who actually use the patent in their code and prevent code that becomes or is directly connected to an agreed standard from being patented -- in other words, avoid the flaws inherent in US patent law. Software patents perhaps aren't the issue -- but badly drawn up patent legislation is. ®

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