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Software patents and RISC OS

By Chris Williams. Published: 10th Sep 2003, 16:39:46 | Permalink | Printable

Peeking outside the boundaries of our platform

'no epatents' logoEditorial 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.

Links


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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Discussion

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These are important issues and I hope that many people from the RISC OS community do put their email adresses on the online-petitions.

-- Julian G. F. Zimmerle

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 11/9/03 12:56AM
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The really scary thing about this is, that the EU patent office has apparently been issuing software patents for many years, against the law. If the proposal goes through, all these (about 30,000) eventually become valid, and that will have massive effects on all kinds of software. RISC OS itself could easily infringe on some of these, even if the features in question have been developed independently.

That patent office is a highly suspect place. More info here: [link]

 is a RISC OS UserZappo on 11/9/03 7:09AM
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The other thing to remember is that if the company holding the patent is a large one with lots of money, even the threat from them to bring legal action agains RISC OS may be enough to kill our community as there are simply not the funds to fight such a case.

The upside of all this is that I am the patent holder of the 'Hello World' program. If/when these laws go through I stand to make a great deal of money. -- Spriteman.

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 11/9/03 1:36PM
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Julian, care to list a few URLs where we can find these online petitions?

Ta -- Spriteman.

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 11/9/03 1:37PM
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One petition is here..

[link]

Chris, drobe.co.uk

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 11/9/03 1:54PM
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Don't just sign petitions! Contact your MEPs and express your own views! You may want to respond with counter-arguments if they ignore your views and parrot red herring arguments about "economic competitiveness", offshoring and the usual distracting "arguments" about why software patents are supposedly good things (albeit to various vested lobbying interests).

If your professional life depends on software development, you may wish to consider the effects patents may have on your career, especially if you aren't either planning to work for a huge company with a huge patent portfolio for the rest of your life, or hoping that your start-up can make cash out of suing large companies over dodgy patents.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 11/9/03 6:48PM
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You really think people making serious money out of software development as a long term career are reading this forum as a way of deciding whether to spend time talking to their MEP, guestx?

You perhaps over-estimate the number of people whose "professional life" depends on their employment in software development. (Or how seriously they take their MEP, or enjoy his/her company).

dgs

 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 12/9/03 12:13AM
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dgs: Well, my professional life depends on working in software development for one.I also work for a large company that will probably benefit from the legislation.

I have already signed the petition at the end of diomus's link above. It is bad enough that my employment condiditons say that my company can claim ownership of any software that I write, even in my own time on my own computer, without the possibility of being sued into the bargain!

-- Martin Dixon, LEICESTER

 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 12/9/03 8:53AM
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The whole point of the recent Web site "blackout" was to reach people whose browsing habits usually only involve surfing on in and downloading the latest "free stuff". Whilst Drobe might not be the chosen recreational launchpad for many top software industry professionals, it is important to get the message out to those entering the profession (note the reasonably high number of students in the RISC OS scene) and those affected by it, especially if the software ported to RISC OS starts to dry up because some idiot-company decides to sue the pants off various open source projects.

The sad thing is that many people will just assume that other people are making the case on their behalf. Right until various vested interests get dubious EU legislation passed to suit their arguably unfair business practices...

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 13/9/03 1:28AM
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