The European Commission and European Parliament are determined to introduce software patents in Europe despite widespread opposition from European companies and software developers, according to a UK open-source software lobbying group.
The European Parliament is considering a proposal to harmonise software-related patent legislation across the EU, with the proposal due for a parliamentary vote on 30 June. If adopted, many developers fear the directive would lead to expensive patent warfare of the kind found in the US, shutting smaller software firms out of competition and endangering open-source development.
Mike Banahan, chief technology officer with OpenForum Europe, a subsidiary of technology lobbyist InterForum, said the group received clear indications during a consultation on the proposal that some form of software patenting would be introduced, regardless of the fact that the consultation showed heated opposition to such patents. Banahan spoke on Thursday at the Linux User and Developer Expo in Birmingham.
"We were briefed that a position that was in total opposition to patents would be discarded, that that was not a position they were prepared to take," Banahan said. "The position was, given that there will be software patents, what kind will there be? It was presented as a done deal."
OpenForum had not intended to submit a position paper on software patents, as it focuses on end user adoption of open-source software, but the group's opinion was solicited by the organisers of the consultation, Banahan said. The paper was misinterpreted in the press as supporting software patents, he added.
If software patenting must be allowed, OpenForum supports strict limitations on what types of patents be granted legitimacy; for example, patents affecting interoperability should not be granted, Banahan said.
As part of the EU consultation, open-source lobbying group EuroLinux organised a petition against the introduction of software patents, which gained several thousand signiatures.
Developers of open-source software feel that software patents could kill off independent developers, who generally do not own patents of their own which they can use to protect themselves from patent lawsuits.
European Parliament officials have argued that some form of patenting is necessary for European companies to profit from their investments in software development, but say that the proposal under consideration places sufficient limits on what can be patented. Critics take the position that in practice, the proposed legislation would allow any software concept or process to be patented.
Software patents are seen as a particular threat to open-source development, since many open-source projects are driven by small firms or individuals without the financial resources to protect themselves from patent lawsuits. European companies and developers have been particularly protective of open-source development because it is seen as a local alternative to relying on proprietary products owned by US companies.
"Politicians don't understand what software is," said Jean-Pierre Laisne, open-source initiative manager for Bull. "They think it is an industry like selling cars, where you will build big buildings and fill them with workers. They don't see how important it is for Europe to have its own software industry, and how important free software can be for this industry." Free software is a term roughly synonymous with open source.
Laisne said it is ironic that open-source software is supported by some companies who are also among the world's largest patent holders, including IBM.
Open-source software is covered by licences which, broadly speaking, allows anyone to modify and redistribute the software's source code, as long as the modifications are returned to the community. These licences prevent any one company from controlling the software's intellectual property.
For a more detailed discussion on software patents, see Richard Stallman's three-part discussion on how software patents victimise developers.