Software Patents in Europe[Introduction | Background | Status | Further Reading ]
Open letter to Prof. Köhler on software patents
May 31st, 2004
Dear Professor Köhler,
"Germany needs to become a country of ideas," you said after your election. You did not ask to patent these ideas. Rightly so, in our opinion. This liberal attitude offers the only way to reach the Lisbon aim of states and heads of government becoming the "most competitive knowledge-based economy" by 2010.
But in fact Europe - with massive support from Germany is undertaking the precise opposite to what should be done. In mid-May, the Council of Ministers affirmed that it would put through a bill permitting the the sueing of someone for royalties from software patents. This is contrary to the recommendations of thirty European professors of computer science1; the German Monopolkommission (an organisation which writes regular reports for the Federal Government on the state of competition)2; MIT3; the Boston University School of Law4; and experts in politics, business and economics5.
Software patents do not patent software programs but the idea behind (the source code is protected by copyright), and they hinder software developers from entering prohibited creative areas when they are late to patent themselves. This is why they should be called software-idea patents.
I would like to demonstrate the damage which is caused to the economy, the state and society with three examples. Had patents on ideas existed in the eighteenth century, Joseph Haydn might have patented "a piece of music consisting of four movements including singing and melody". The consequence: Haydn might have requested any amount of licence fees for any of Mozart's forty-one symphonies.
Today matters are similar. Internet telephone is expected to quadruple its turnover until 2007: a real growth market indeed. In the United States there are 880 patents dealing with IP telephony. A vast prohibited creative area is developing which will hinder new solutions.
This would be as if Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had wanted to patent his unique idea in 1989: had he done so, the World Wide Web would be open only to a small, financially-strong, club of chosen people.
Of course we agree with you that society must reward the performance of a software developer adequately, otherwise the stimulus to make his abilities available to society is missing. But we have a strong copyright law to protect software. Additional software patents are more likely to be an impediment.
With the best wishes for your coming presidency
Free Software Foundation Europe