The workshops will examine the definition of a 'technical contribution' when deciding whether a particular software patent should be granted. This is a key part of the Computer Implemented Inventions Directive (CIID), which says that software can be patented if it can be shown to make a technical contribution.
The future of this directive is uncertain, after the European Parliament asked on Wednesday for a full rewrite. The UK has been very supportive of the directive, unlike fellow EU members such as Poland. These public workshops could influence the UK's future patent policy, according to a UKPO spokesman.
"It depends on the outcome of the workshops -- if, for example, they show that there is some consensus it will become extremely persuasive to make changes [to the policy]," said the spokesman. "But, it is too early to make promises that there will be an entirely new direction -- we need to wait and see what the workshops produce."
Peter Hayward, a divisional director at the UKPO, said the Patent Office accepts that the software industry is divided on the CIID. UKPO hopes that this meeting will help it to come up with a definition that keeps both sides happy.
"Opposing views on the directive have been expressed by different sectors of the software industry, and not just along the traditional division between the large and small firms," said Hayward. "We will be very interested to see if a definition which is clear to software developers can be found which continues to enable the patent system to protect technical inventions."
Science and Innovation minister Lord Sainsbury agreed that more discussion was needed around the issue of technical contribution, at the end of a meeting held at the Department of Trade and Industry in December 2004. Unlike the meeting in December, to which some anti-patent campaigners were not invited, any software developer or patent professional can attend these workshops, according to the UKPO.
The issue of technical contribution is a tricky one. The current definition within the CIID has been criticised as vague, and opponents of the directive say that it will allow companies to patent the majority of software. Last October, various German politicians proposed a change to the definition so that software can only be patented if it results in a physical change and cannot be patented if it is merely a business process, algorithm or data processing activity.
To attend the workshops you must register on the UKPO site by 18 February. Workshops will be held during March and April in Coventry, Bolton, Bristol, Belfast, Glasgow, London and Cardiff.