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Software Patents in Europe

[Introduction | Background | Status | Further Reading]

Open Letter [2004-05-10] [2004-05-31] [2004-07-06] [2004-08-02] [2004-09-06] [2004-10-04] [2004-11-01] [2004-12-06] [2005-01-03] [2005-02-07] [2005-03-07] [2005-04-05] [2005-05-02] [2005-06-06]

Open letter to all citizens of Europe

May 10th, 2004

Dear Fellow Citizens,

Have you ever heard of internet protocol (IP) telephony? This is beautiful technology! While sitting at your PC, you click a number and the computer dials for you -- automatically! To chat to the person on the side you can use a headset plugged into your computer. To arrange a meeting with friends you can have a telephone conference with as many people as you want. Also, if you and your partners own a webcam you can also see each other. With a flatrate connection no costs are incurred.

The business opportunities are considerable: IBM expects cost reductions of 30% for professional users. The market research company Gartner expects the market volume to quadruple till 2007 (as compared to 2002). Definitely a very interesting field!

However - there is a road block called 'software patents': While Copyright law prevents competitors from selling applications (e.g. "Microsoft Word") under a different product name, software patents protect ideas and make them a creative wasteland for many years. Apple, for example holds a patent on a virtual wastepaper basket.

Given the appropriate legal framework, Apple can prohibit implementation of the idea of a 'paper basket' in any other software application, regardless of the technical solution or programming methodology and language used. Alternatively they might choose to extort licensing fees from the programmer writing the paper basket software for using the idea of a wastebasket.

Back to internet telephony. IP telephony is like an incredibly complex house of cards of ideas: how to synchronise audio and video? How to compress data such that users with low bandwidth analog modems are not excluded? All of these ideas are necessary for internet telephony to become reality.

The result of software patents: no IP telephony at all! Professor Henning Schulzrinne from Columbia University (New York) currently suggests that programmers wait another 17 years, after which the patents will have expired!

In the US there is a legal basis to enforce claims from software patents. Outside the scope of the law, the European Patent Office has been granting software patents for a number of years, which could not be enforced for lack of legal basis.

Against good reason employed at the crafting of the European system and against the will of the European Parliament, which reaffirmed the undesirability of software patents in September 2003, the European Union's Council of Ministers now seeks to force legislation similar to the US! Now - less than seven months later - the European Union's Council of Ministers and the Commission prepare to vote for the exact opposite of the parliamentarian will. What an affront to our elected parliamentary representatives!

This abuse of the basis of democracy will have severe economic consequences: despite current law the European Patent Office has already granted 30,000 software patents. How much creative and hence economic potential is blocked for decade(s) by this? How many jobs do software patents cost or prevent?

Who has an interest in monopolising ideas and dealing with them? In November 2003, the CEOs of Alcatel, Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens wrote to the EU commission and have spoken in favour of software patents. Did they know what they were doing? Obviously not - especially the telephony equipment suppliers would do excellent business in IP telephony.

Obviously, patent lawyers are interested in new and complex regulation: after the European Parliament's decision the chamber of patent lawyers issued a 12-page position paper, signed by the president of the "computer software committee". From the point of view of the more than 700 patent lawyers in Munich (to these you need to add the legal personnel in companies and chambers) this effort is justified when there is a threat of losing an area of activity with the potential for growth. However, can the European economy afford to sacrifice its competitiveness in favour of these partial interests?? As long as the public discussion is dominated by patent lawyers in patent offices, lawyers in law firms, chambers, associations and ministries one gets the impression that these particular interests are the interests of the entire society.

The nuisance of the patent system in the software field has been scientifically explored by MIT, the Massachusetts Institue of Technology. In a 2003 study its researchers found out that the more software patents a company holds, the less it invests in research and development.

What happens in government, society and economy as a whole if these developments are not stopped? We bar people from being creative. We put societal development into the hands of bureaucrats bullying us for their own benefit at every turn. To use the words of the Czech President Vaclav Klaus "The EU is not about freedom and openness, but about bureaucratisation, regulation and harmonisation". If we leave this discussion to others, we may prove him right.

Dear Fellow Citizens you know us - fsfe.org and www.ffii.org - as organisations fostering freedom in the digital age (Free Software) and public information goods.

We will continue doing that work.

Software patents will enslave all software, including Free Software. So in consequence this might be much more: the enslavement of society as a whole by the patent establishment. Therefore we ask you for support in our struggle for freedom in Europe! You can do this by:

With kind regards,

Georg Greve
Free Software Foundation Europe
Hartmut Pilch
Foundation for a Free Informational Infrastructure