Software patents and RISC OSBy Chris Williams. Published: 10th Sep 2003, 16:39:46 | Permalink | Printable
Peeking outside the boundaries of our platformEditorial The issue of software patents in Europe has, since the start of September, simmered gently on the frontpages of the mainstream IT online media and at least gave analysts a story to reflect upon that isn't directly related to SCO, the RIAA or the rollercoaster ride that is the IT job market. Now that the dust has settled, it's an appropriate time to review the whole affair and importantly, see what it means to RISC OS users.
Firstly, there was supposed to be a vote on the future of software patents by the European Parliament on the 1st September. However, due to various demonstrations both online and offline - reportedly hundreds of websites closing down in protest and also the rally outside Parliament in Brussels - this vote has been postponed until the 22nd of this month. Yes, this protest thing appears to work, we were astounded too.
The vote centres on a proposed software patents directive which aims to "harmonise and clarify" patenting laws on computer implemented inventions. The patent offices in each EU member state have varying criteria for rubber stamping software related patents and this directive would ensure everyone follows the same rules. The proposal also suggests that the updated rules would encourage innovation and growth in smaller software houses, however economists are said to disagree with that.
As it currently stands in the EU, inventions that are essentially programs for computers are unpatentable. This protects trivial functionality in software from being patented and later used to stop competitors from implementing similar functionality in their software, even if the competitor developed the functionality from scratch.
In the US however, where the patent system is more liberal, software functionality can be patented. This has lead to situations like the filing of the often cited Amazon.com One-Click patent. Amazon's patent basically describes a system in which registered users can enter their credit card number and other personal details and then later click on a listed item to buy it in one simple step. It's a handy feature but all agree it's not exactly a technological breakthrough. Amazon.com's patent was used at one point to stop one of their online competitors from providing a similar feature - it was enough to provoke Tim O'Reilly into writing an interesting open letter about it.
In fact, there's a whole list of questionable software patents compiled by O'Reilly - how about Sony's patent on automatically downloading and storing webpages, or perhaps Microsoft's patent on style sheets?
So despite all this, the proposed EU directive would allow 'computer implemented inventions' to become patentable. Fears are growing amongst European developers that larger software companies will merrily file patents on just about anything to later force smaller developers into paying substantial licensing fees or to remove functionality. The Register have a particularly detailed piece on subject, published earlier in the year.
As of late, the RISC OS platform has begun to rely on open source software, with software ported to our architectures and changes to source code then handed back in contribution when necessary. From desktop applications to games to tools and utilities and also a proposed printing system, ported software helps to fill in the gaps. While under the proposed software patent rules RISC OS developers could be slapped with patent infringement hassles, particular big business have a much larger target that they consider a growing threat - open source software. The open source community has built software to provide free alternatives to commercial titles and it's something particular large firms would like to see extinguished.
The links section below has a number of links to more substantial articles if you want to find out more about the software patents issue and don't forget to let your MEPs, your EU representives, know what you think.
Protests derail software patents vote from ZDNet
Software Patents: A clicking bomb from The Economist
Analysis of the software patent situation from The Register
Software patent news tracking from the O'Reilly Network
Patentability of computer implemented inventions proposal from Arlene McCarthy (MEP)
Software patents in Europe from the FFII.
Software patents in 15 minutes from EuroLinux.
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