Words by c.z.robertson

Software patents in Europe: Something missing?

2001-08-08 01:00:00 UTC

At the end of last year a consultation was launched to determine people's attitudes towards allowing patents on software in Europe, and the EC has just published a report on the consultation summarising the responses. Having just read through it, I'm rather concerned that it does not mention the single most important reason why open-source advocates are opposed to software patents: that patents are incompatible with open-source software.

If a technique is patented it cannot be used in open-source software. Open-source licenses give rights to users that are incompatible with the restrictions that can be placed on a patented technique. That is why we are so concerned about the threat that software patents pose.

It seems strange that this should not be mentioned in the analysis, which instead raises issues such as the visibility of patented techniques in open-source software. There are two possible explanations: firstly that none of the open-source advocates who responded made any mention of this, and secondly that the analysts either failed to notice or failed to understand this point.

It is actually worryingly likely that no one pointed this out. It is so obvious to those of us who are close to these issues that we may not think to mention it. But unfortunately the politicians who are reading this report will almost certainly not have the understanding that we do, and I'm very worried that they will now be making decisions based on incomplete information.

(Ok, it's actually not true that open-source licenses and patents are incompatible. It is possible to license a patent so that it can be used freely in open-source software. However, almost all companies which are attempting to extract revenue from their patents will not do this.)