October 21, 2004

NoSoftwarePatents.com for Europe

Author: Tina Gasperson

Red Hat, MySQL AB, and three German Web hosting companies have announced a partnership with software developer Florian Muller to support NoSoftwarePatents.com, an organization that hopes to stop the European Union from granting patents to what Muller calls a "cartel of patent superpowers" whose aim is to stifle competition.Muller, the campaign manager and spokesperson for the organization, says the Patent Convention, the European equivalent of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, doesn't currently allow patents on software. However, the European Union is moving toward passage of a software patent directive that opponents fear would create a system similar to the one in the United States.

In fact, the European Council has already indicated support for the directive and was expected to pass its recommendation on to the European Parliament for final adoption, barring interference and persuasion from opposing interests such as NoSoftwarePatents.com.

"The European Parliament already voted against software patents last year," Muller says, "and it could veto the proposal by the Council." But, he adds, in order to do away with software patents completely, the Patent Office must have a clear directive that specifies it can no longer issue the patents, because "tens of thousands" of software patents have already been issued.

Muller illustrates the point that too many broad and trivial software patents have been granted by using an imaginary but typical Web store as an example. The page lists 20 examples of simple ideas that have already been granted patents in Europe, such as paying by credit card over the Internet, segmented video-on-demand, tabbed palettes, rebate codes, and ordering via cell phone.

Muller says the biggest hurdle to stopping software patents is a lack of awareness of the issue in the individual members of the European Union. "The countries don't entrust independent politicians with this," he says. "They have their national patent bureaucrats define the countries' policy in the Council. The only way we can overcome that problem is through a lot of lobbying at the level of national parliaments and political parties."

Muller says he has been working to create awareness about software patents in his home country of Germany, and he is optimistic that the German parliament will speak up against the directive when it goes before the Council tomorrow.

Before launching the NoSoftwarePatents.com campaign, Muller says he was an adviser to the CEO of MySQL AB on a "variety of strategic matters." He convinced MySQL, Red Hat, and 1 Und 1, a German Web hosting company, of the benefits of launching such a campaign. Red Hat has already expressed its intention not to enforce its existing software patents against any open source software projects, and MySQL has already expressed its disdain for software patents of any kind.

The companies are providing human capital contributions and an undisclosed level of financial support to the project. Muller hopes that in the future, Red Hat and MySQL will lend some of their executive talent as voices in the fight against software patents in the E.U., but right now, he admits, "I'm running this campaign pretty independently."

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