Software Patents in Europe
We are working towards a world where software does what software users want it to do. For this, software users must be able to participate in the development and distribution of the software. Software patents block this goal by adding legal and financial risks to software development and distribution and by giving the patent holders legal power to completely prohibit software developers from using the patented ideas.
To understand how patents work, it is important to realise that they have almost nothing in common with copyright. While copyright is granted on the the work of an author, such as a computer program, patents are granted on ideas that could be used inside a computer program. So when thinking of patents, think of "symphony combining wind and string instruments" and not "Beethoven's 2nd symphony."
A problem for everybody
- Software patents add legal risks, and therefore costs, to software development.
- They specifically inhibit the development of useful software by blocking compatibility and interoperability.
- Patents are incompatible with software because software is so complex - too many ideas are used for it to be practical to count them and check them against existing patents
Software patents are a problem for everybody , no matter if big or small companies, individual software developers, users, non-free or Free Software.
- The companies have to spend more money for their legal department, to register patents, to negotiate patent crosslicensing, and to defend themselves against patent claims. While for some time software patents were a nice tool for big companies to prevent newcomers from competing with them, they also have to face companies who only sue others on software patents, and never do any software development by themselves. Against them, any software company can only loose.
- For software developers software patents mean legal uncertainty: whenever you start programming you might violate patent law. You will never be able to find out if you violate a patent. Even if you read a software patent you might not realise it covers what you are currently implementing. With patents, we have to pay money to register them. On the other hand with copyright, everyone of us, even those who just program as a hobby, can write a program, and afterwards it will fall under copyright without any additional costs. In fact, software patents can dispossess us as they can prevent from using the rights we get from copyright, e.g. to distribute the program to others.
- Users would have to pay for all those costs. Some people estimate that the patent costs for smartphones are about 20% of the actual price payed by the customer.
The current status
The European Patent Convention states that software is not patentable. But laws are always interpreted by courts, and in this case interpretations of the law differ. So the European Patents Office (EPO) grants software patents by declaring them as "computer implemented inventions". We will continue to work with our partners and others, to inform people about the dangers of software patents. We will explain to the legislative that they have to make the laws more precise so that the patent offices have to act as intended. We will continue to work to get rid of that problem.
In the US our sister organisation is working to build awareness to the harm caused by software patents and in New Zealand the government understood the problem and recommended in April 2010 to include computer programs amongst inventions that may not be patented.
An upcoming development in 2022 is the introduction of a Unitary Patent System in Europe. This system aims to implement unified patent recognition in up to 25 EU Member States, as well as a Unified Patent Court that will handle all disputes related to unitary patents. There are concerns that having such a cenralized and unitary system would furrther stifle the spirit of sharing and cooperation inherent in Free Software, if software patents are allowed to exist in this system.
Selected FSFE actions
German Parliament tells government to strictly limit patents on software On Friday the 7th of June the German Parliament decided upon a joint motion to limit software patents (see English translation by BIKT). The Parliament urges the German Government to take steps to limit the granting of patents on computer programs. Software should exclusively be covered by copyright, and the rights of the copyright holders should not be devalued by third parties' software patents. The only exception where patents should be allowed are computer programs which replace a mechanical or electromagnetic component. In addition the Parliament made clear that governmental actions related to patents must never interfere with the legality of distributing Free Software.
Letter to German competition authorities - 2010-12-22 Free Software Foundation Europe's concerns regarding the acquisition of Novell's patents by CPTN Holdings
2007-present: IPRED2 - The Criminalisation Directive A proposal has been made by the European Commission to criminalise and increase the penalties and invasive investigative measures for patents, copyrights, trademarks, and all other laws lumped together by the term "Intellectual Property". It looks like patents will now be excluded from this directive, but the legislative process is still ongoing and there are many other harmful aspects of this directive that must be corrected.
2006-2007: Version 3 of the GNU GPL: During the 18 month public consultation for the drafting of GPLv3, FSFE worked to assist community participation. Among other benefits, GPLv3 offers better protection for free software developers against patent litigation. Our licences can only solve a small part of the harm of software patents, but they can make free software development easy in some ways.
2006-July-12th: Participation in EC hearing: Ciaran O'Riordan represented and made a statement on behalf of FSFE at this hearing organised by the European Commission on the future of the patent system.
2006-March-31st: Response submitted to EC patent questionnaire: FSFE has submitted its response to the European Commission's questionnaire titled "On the patent system in Europe".
2005-July-6th: Software Patent Directive Dropped: After years of struggle, the European Parliament finally rejected the software patent directive with 648 of 680 votes.
2005-July-1st: Bullet Points on the Second Reading: One week before the second reading vote by the European Parliament, FSFE sent a simplified explanation of the core areas of confusion. This was delivered in six languages which were produced on short notice by the FSFE translation team.
2005-June-28th: Karlsruhe Memorandum: The Free Software Foundation Europe has published, on June 28th 2005, the Karlsruhe Memorandum against software patents. This memorandum collected more than 200 signatures at this year's GNU/LinuxTag conference in Karlsruhe. Citing scientific evidence, the text argues that software patents in Europe will hurt jobs and innovation. Among the supporters are leaders of some of Europe's biggest trade union groups. All MEPs received a copy of this.
What are patents, what are software patents, and why would anyone want them?
How do software patents influence very different areas of society and economy?
Goal of this website is to build an information resource for campaigns against software patents worldwide.
List of transcripts, such as Richard Stallman's 2004 talk: The Dangers of Software Patents