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UK rejects US-style software patents

And no to business process patents too

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The UK government has plumped against any changes to software patent laws, argueing that business methods should remain unpatentable.

It is pushing for the European Commission to take this line and reject the example of theUS which has extended patent rights in these areas. At the same time, the government say current laws are unclear and urgent European action is needed.

Consumer Affairs Minister Dr Kim Howells said: "We shall be pressing them for an early Directive which embodies our conclusions, and with which the Convention can then be aligned."

But within the EC there are at least five directorates which are interested in software and business patent laws and the debate is fierce. In particular there is the pro-patenting Internal Market directorate and the open source friendly Information Society directorate.

The UK announcement follows a period of consultation inviting responses to the question 'Should Patents Be Granted for Computer Software or Ways of Doing Business?' The EC Internal Markets directorate launched its own consultation process in October with a deadline of 15 December.

The results are expected in April after quite a bit of reconciliation between directorates. But many of the UK's responses were cc'd from the EC consultation so the UK Patent Office hope its results will be a microcosm of the commissions.

The UK Patent Office said it had been planning its own consultation process, because it was fed up with waiting for the EC to get its act together.

But then the EC consultation came out, taking it by surprise. The upshot is a too-short consultation period, the UK Patent Office argues.

But in the absence of action, companies can continue to file patent applications, for both software and business processes, with the European Patent Office. And US businesses are getting the jump on European operations by doing this.

Jeremy Philpott, an information officer with the UK Patent Office, said the Internal Market directorate had been arguing that the EC should align its position on software and business process patents with the US, something to which the UK is now opposed.

"If you stop and think long enough the US has thrown themselves into a hole. They've gone for patents on business methods which are very good for restraining other people trade. You can patent ways of undercutting your competitor - go help anyone else," he said.

As for software E-Minister Patricia Hewitt said: "Our key principle is that patents should be for technological innovations. So a program for a new machine tool should be patentable but a non-technological innovation, such as grammar-checking software for a word-processor, should not be."

"The majority of those who responded agree with the Government and oppose patents for ways of doing business on the Internet."

She pointed out that some people who responded to the consultation see patents as a threat to development of new software.

Consumer Affairs Minister Dr Kim Howells said: "The patent system is there to stimulate innovation and benefit the consumer. This is the test we have applied to determine what should, and should not, be patentable in the fields of computer software and ways of doing business." ®

Related Links

'Should Patents Be Granted for Computer Software or Ways of Doing Business': The Government's Conclusions
Summary Analysis of Respondents' Views
Details of the Commission's consultation are available on the Internal Market's directorate

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