Slippery patents directive is doubleplusungood

Patent officers and politicians simply do not speak the language of developers - preferring their own brand of Newspeak

The news that the European Software Directive may be slipped through in a fisheries session in Brussels next week really is doubleplusungood.

Or that at least is how the double-talking civil servants in George Orwell's 1984 would have described it. The only reason the directive has got this far is that the proponents -- interested parties all, including big software businesses and the various European patent offices -- have managed to co-opt the language of patents with their Newspeak so as to make any meaningful discussion almost impossible. Big Brother would have been proud.

If any proof were needed of the complete success of patent officers and politicians to fail to speak the same language as developers, it was demonstrated clearly just before Christmas at a meeting in Whitehall. This meeting, for which the invitation criteria was straight out of a Kafka novel, was intended to explain to developers just why the software patent directive is such a good idea.

It will, say the politicians and patent officers, stop proliferation in Europe of the sorts of software patents that have reduced the US software business to a series of legal battles over who owns such grand inventions as the idea of a software equivalent of the shopping trolley.

It all hinges on the definition of 'technical implementation', which the patent officers and politicians say only allows patents on software governing systems that variously include traffic control systems, bread makers, robot arms, mobile phones and vehicle software.

Examples of software that would not exhibit technical implementation include accounting packages, spreadsheets, computer aided design software, portfolio management, translation software, Internet trading and online auction software.

Although a casual observer may easily discern some difference between the two sets of examples, for the developers at the meeting, who spend their lives developing software in many of the areas mentioned, the distinction was unclear. As hard as the patent officers tried to explain their logic, the roar of (mainly incredulous) laughter from the floor only got louder.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the consultation on this directive began over a decade ago, before the situation in the US exploded into the mess it is today. It is just one more example of how inadequate current legislative processes are at addressing the fast-paced world of technology.

The best thing that could happen to the Europe Software Patents directive now is for Brussels to throw it out and start afresh.

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