Editorial: Clear patent danger

Editorial: Clear patent danger

Last week we saw something pretty rare for the IT industry — a protest.

The protest involved hundreds of Web sites replacing their front page with a warning about the danger of imposing the European Union’s proposed directive on software patents. Europe’s software development community also took their case to the streets. Several hundred people gathered in front of a European parliament building in Belgium to lend their cause some physical presence.

What’s the fuss about? The EU is attempting to establish an overarching patent standard for computer-implemented inventions, which includes — but is not confined to — software, bringing into line the different interpretations being given by different national courts throughout Europe. The issue has been highly contentious. Supporters of open source and free software assert that copyright laws are enough to protect business innovations and call for all patents to be outlawed while large businesses push for a US-style approach allowing for so-called business methods to be patented.

If it passes — and by the time you read this we will know whether it did — protestors claim Europe will become much like the US — a place where just about any technology or process can be protected by patent.

While this protest might seem a little far from home, let there be no mistake about the ramifications of such laws for the IT industry as a whole. Most of the products you sell every day are covered by patents and I am confident that a good percentage of them have been the subject of a court case at some stage as technology vendors squabble over what constitutes their intellectual property.

The tougher things get in this industry, the more desperate the tactic to maintain revenues — even if it’s from somewhere other than the sales of products and services. There has evolved an industry within an industry that is dedicated to the patenting of technology processes and it works in the favour of any large vendor that is anxious about its future.

The industry is in danger of stifling innovation if such a liberal approach is taken to software patents worldwide as has been taken in the US. In the last two years, the US system has seen lawsuits fought out over such common and universally important technologies as microprocessors (Intel vs. Via), file compression standards (PKWare vs. WinZip), tape back-up (Quantum vs. StorageTek), handwriting recognition (Palm vs. Xerox), Handheld devices (NCR vs. Handspring, Palm) cookies (F5 vs. half the industry) and cache memory (Intergraph vs. everybody).

You could argue that it is often through mimicry or imitation that the industry is able to move in synch. Consider the implications of the US approach to patents on the development of the next important standard that will define the way we move or store data in the future — the next TCP/IP or HTTP for example. There is a chance the industry may never evolve if one vendor convinces a patent office that it owns that intellectual property and intends to charge anyone that profits from it, or merely uses it, a hefty license fee.

Soon I imagine the Australian IT industry will be faced with many of the same tough questions about intellectual property that are now being addressed in Europe. When that happens, one can only hope that the local industry weighs into the debate, and that regulators don’t get swept up in the lobbying might of large vendors.

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