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Software Patents in Europe

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Software patents are bad for your health

3 January 2005

Dear Mr LEE Jong-wook,

Software patents grant a monopoly on their specific idea. The patentee can grant or withhold authorisation to use that idea and unilaterally define the terms under which such authorisation is granted or withheld. This is before even a single line of source code has been written. In fact: lawyers are generally in a better position to obtain software patents than the majority of programmers are. Each program consists of thousands of ideas -- each of them potentially subject to patent claims. Even though the European Patent Convention explicitly excludes software from being patented, so far 30,000 software patents have in fact already been granted in recent years.

The discussion about a formal introduction of software patents has been ongoing for several years and we would like to make you aware of the effect of software patents on telemedicine, an area of great hope for many.

Today, we are seeing the first steps in the telemedicine area. Instead of being delivered by traditional post, X-Ray scans are transferred electronically, reducing the availability timescale from days to seconds. Physicians will soon be able to monitor individual patients remotely, something that will in particular offer possibilities of increased medical coverage for people in remote areas all over the world. Given the demographic development in northern countries and the increasing medical needs of potentially wealthy elderly people; that particular idea was patented years ago.

The database of the European Patent Office currently contains 69 patents directly referring to "telemedicine". That seemingly low number should not let you rest easy. Not only is the number of software patents likely to skyrocket after the formal introduction of software patents.

Each application in the field of telemedicine will also depend on basic software principles to function. These basic principals include security, networking and data storage. Security in particular is key, because the number of methods to make computer systems secure are limited. There is no compulsory licensing of software patents, so market tactics are likely to see many applications disappear in courtroom battles before they have become available to patients. In addition, besides having to refinance the legal costs, each telemedicine and remote surgery application is likely to suffer from known security holes and stability problems.

Software patents are putting the wealth of the software patent lobby over the health of citizens in Europe and around the world.

That is why we believe software patents will adversely affect your cause and are asking you to take a firm stand against software patents. If you have further questions, need additional information or would like to help us prevent software patents in Europe, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

With kind regards,

Georg Greve
Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE)