Patent absurdity

Patent absurdity

Summary: If patent law had been applied to novels in the 1880s, great books would not have been written. If the EU applies it to software, every computer user will be restricted

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Next month, the European Parliament will vote on the vital question of whether to allow patents covering software, which would restrict every computer user and tie software developers up in knots.

Many politicians may be voting blindly — not being programmers, they don't understand what software patents do. They often think patents are similar to copyright law (except for some details), which is not the case.

For example, when I publicly asked Patrick Devedjian, then the minister for industry, how France would vote on the issue of software patents, he responded with an impassioned defence of copyright law, praising Victor Hugo for his role in the adoption of copyright.

Those who imagine effects like those of copyright law cannot grasp the real effects of software patents. We can use Hugo as an example to illustrate the difference between the two.

A novel and a modern complex programme have certain points in common: each is large and implements many ideas. Suppose patent law had been applied to novels in the 1800s; suppose states such as France had permitted the patenting of literary ideas. How would this have affected Hugo's writing? How would the effects of literary patents compare with the effects of literary copyright?

Consider the novel Les Misérables, written by Hugo. Because he wrote it, the copyright belonged only to him. He did not have to fear that some stranger could sue him for copyright infringement and win. That was impossible, because copyright covers only the details of a work of authorship, and only restricts copying. Hugo had not copied Les Misérables, so he was not in danger.

Patents work differently. They cover ideas — each patent is a monopoly on practising some idea, which is described in the patent itself.

Here's one example of a hypothetical literary patent:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents, in the mind of a reader, the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time and becomes bitter towards society and humankind.

Claim 2: a communication process according to claim 1, wherein said character subsequently finds moral redemption through the kindness of another.

Claim 3: a communication process according to claims 1 and 2, wherein said character changes his name during the story.

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • A great way of comparing and very true. It would be very nice if ZDNET could get a party in favour of software patents to comment on this article. I'm not in favour of software patents at all. But let one of the large parties comment in public so we can see how good there arguments realy are.

    And not the standard reply that poor SME need software patents. We don't need the garbage, we don't have the time and the money to introduce software in our companies. We like to innovate and copyright provides enough protection. If its for our online shop or the software we develop. I don't need a whole battery of lawyers. In fact the company I work for even needs more developers so we can develop more products!
  • Why does anybody believe that discussing or campaigning against software patents in Europe is going to make any difference? The EU is a collection of corrupt individuals that are under the complete control of large corporations. Software patents, and any other future forms of imposed control are here to stay.

    Nighty night.
  • James, it already made a difference. Just not enough yet.