Developers angry over software patent 'evasion'

A public meeting held to discuss the European directive on software patents has disappointed some anti-patent campaigners, who say their concerns weren't addressed

A meeting held at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on Tuesday to clarify the proposed Computer Implemented Inventions Directive left software developers angry that their concerns still haven't been addressed.

DTI Minister Lord David Sainsbury said the meeting had been called to address the concerns of those who had written to their MPs about the issue.

"I thought it would be useful to have a meeting like this because I've received and answered many hundreds of letters from you and others about the current proposals," said Lord Sainsbury. "A few have been supportive but the great majority have raised fears and concerns on our continued course of action."

He said the meeting should clarify the issues around patents: "I hope that… I will be able to allay many of your fears and cut through all the rhetoric which we have had on this issue."

But opponents of software patents who were given the opportunity to question the UK Patent Office (UKPO) on the issues around patents said little was actually clarified.

James Martin, an open source developer, said the UKPO did not satisfactorily answer his questions, in particular a query regarding a patent on speeding up CPU emulators which has recently -- and controversially -- been granted to ARM.

"Our concerns haven't been addressed and the language being used by the Patent Office was muddying the issue," said Martin. "When we asked 'Is software patentable?' and cited the recent ARM case, which is clearly purely software, they dodged the question and started talking about something else."

Glyn Wintle, the chief technology officer for online betting company, had a similar opinion. "They tried to do what they normally do, which is answer the question in an imprecise way," said Wintle.

One of the points made by Lord Sainsbury was that the proposed directive would encourage innovation. "We want a directive which encourages and protect innovation at all levels, especially for small companies," said Sainsbury.

But Michael Tortolano, the founder of software company Home Media Networks, said patents stifle innovation -- but that it's hard to demonstrate that companies haven't carried out work because they were worried about breaching a patent.

"We are trying to protect desktop and server companies from being crippled by software patents," said Tortolano. "We can't show the amount of engineering work-around that companies have had to do [to avoid violating a patent]. We can’t show all the ideas that have never come into fruition because companies are on dubious legal ground so have not pursued it."

The claim that patents protect innovation is currently being investigated through a study launched by Open Source Risk Management. The study aims to trace the technical history of patents which were identified as relevant to the City of Munich's Linux migration. The migration was put on hold in August over fears that if the city could face legal problems if it used Linux..

Martin conceded that some positive things came out of the meeting -- for example the government will hold a workshop to discuss technical contributions, and will allow those who were at the meeting to suggest amendments to the directive.

But these concessions may have come too late, said Martin. The EU Council may pass the new patent directive in a Fishery or Environment meeting before Christmas.

Wookey, a Debian developer and technical director of Aleph One, hopes Tuesday' meeting has made Sainsbury more aware of the concerns of software developers.

"Hopefully the minister will now appreciate that what he has heard from the Patent Office isn't the whole story," said Wookey.