Patent war?

The proposed EU Directive on the ‘Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions’ could lead to a patent war between the US and the EU. Dave Wilson explains.

‘If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.’ – General George Patton Jr.

On September 24, the European Parliament gave its initial approval to a ‘Directive’ on the ‘Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions’.

Before it did, however, it threw in loads of amendments, some of which were aimed at stopping the US practice of patenting ‘business methods and software’.

So what are these US-style ‘business methods and software’ that we plan to stop companies from patenting here in the good old EU?

Well, the one that trips off the tip of everyone’s tongue is the famous ‘one-click shopping’ idea that Amazon patented a few years back. In a nutshell, it describes a method and system for placing an order to purchase an item over the Internet using ‘cookies’ which are used to find customer information and facilitate the billing process.

For software developers who want to create a similar sort of ‘one-click shopping’ functionality on their own e-commerce sites, this is bad news.

Even if their code doesn’t contain a line of Amazon’s, they are technically infringing Amazon’s patented idea if they try to do the same thing.

From the outset, all this would appear to be logical and above board, but upon closer analysis, it flies in the face of reason.

If you are not free to write your own software to perform the same function as Amazon’s, why is it then that AMD are free to develop processors that run the same code that Intel’s do? Why is it that Eaton Fluid Power and Denison Hydraulics are both allowed to make hydraulic pumps? How come both Mitsubishi and Omron can build Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs)?

Clearly, the US Patent Office has goofed badly. And the chaps at the European Parliament have been wise and judicious to prevent any of their nonsense from reaching our green and pleasant lands.

So it’s good news for the folks over here, isn’t it? When the new European Directive gets passed through Parliament, any software developer in the EU will be able to copy the Amazon ‘business method’ on his or her web site without fear of some lawyers’ standard issue kicking in his door.

And then the fun will really start. Because once such software is deployed on a web site, someone, somewhere will have to decide which country it can actually operate from. And where it can be accessed. And whose patent law applies to it.

But it won’t ever happen, will it? According to analysts at the Gartner Group, even if the amended directive survives relatively unchanged, there won’t be any changes in European patenting law until at least 2005. Because an EU directive can’t be implemented in national laws before 4Q05 at the earliest.

Before then, the US has got loads of time to bring a lot of pressure to bear on those naughty socialist rogues in the EU to bring them back into line. Which undoubtedly they will do with the immense fervour and gusto that has personified the American business mentality for so long.