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Software Patents in Europe

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Software patents detrimental to European power supply business

Open Letter to the President of the European electricity industry Hans Haider

December 6th, 2004

Dear Mr Haider,

the European Union is on the way to introduce a legal basis for software patents in Europe. While you may consider this a topic outside your daily business, it is likely to become the cause of serious security problems to European power supplies.

The dependence of reliable power supplies on reliable software has steadily increased over the years and ever since the US-East Coast blackout of 2003 it has become a topic of public interest. Huge problems are often caused by small mistakes and thanks to networking effects, they can spread like wildfire, affecting huge areas.

One of the ideas to counter such developments was recently proposed by Adilson Enio Motter, guest scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Complex Systems Physics: His proposal is to stop the problem spreading by selective shutdown of a few critical crosspoints.

If the software patent directive is adopted in its current form, it would be possible to apply for a software patent on the so-called "control of cascade" -- regardless of whether the patentee has implemented a solution to the idea or not. Anyone who has a solution to implement this idea needs the permission of the patent holder, which the patent holder is able to give or refuse.

There will be many other examples for ideas that fundamentally affect the security of software systems controlling the European power supply and software in general -- as the methods to make computer systems secure are limited. It is impossible to avoid software patents completely as computer programs contain thousands of ideas, all of which should be patentable according to the directive, you will most likely only learn of the particular patents once your solutions have entered the production environment and your legal department receives the bill.

Not only does this contradict the draft directive on the security of our electricity supplies, which was passed by the European Council on Monday 22nd of November 2004, it would make each of the European power supply companies vulnerable to legal attacks by specialised software patent companies and law-firms seeking to maximise their revenue. This seems detrimental to Europe as a region and to the European power supply business, which is why we would like to ask for your support in our struggle against software patents in Europe. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you need further information.

With kind regards,

Georg Greve
Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE)