Software patents raise hackles in Britain

A U.K. foundation gathers testimony from British businesses and coders opposed to software patents.

A campaign to raise awareness about software patents has found strong opposition to their introduction in the United Kingdom.

The Protect Innovation project is being run by the U.K. arm of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which hopes to gather testimony showing that software patents threaten innovation and would harm the U.K. economy.

In May, the European Union council voted in favor of changes to the proposed EU software patent directive that would allow the widespread patenting of software in Europe. The council was due to adopt an official position on this issue on Sept. 24, but it has now been delayed until the end of November.

More than 20 small companies and individuals involved in the software industry have already used Protect Innovation to voice their concerns. Many fear that their businesses would be seriously affected if software were to be made patentable.

Alex Bowden, chief executive of FTLS, a Cambridge-based software development company, spoke for many contributors when he warned that software patents would allow large companies with banks of patent lawyers to launch a stream of patent applications.

"I believe that the proposed European legislation on software patents will be a disaster. It will destroy the U.K. software industry except perhaps for the very largest companies," Bowden said in his submission to Protect Innovation.

"Software innovation is spontaneous and comes because the right person is trying to solve the right problem on a specific day," Bowden added. "We need copyright to protect the result of our work from direct copying, but we do not need patents. The software industry has been vastly creative in the last 25 years without patents. It will not be more creative with them."

According to Jeffrey Lake of Tertio Telecommunications Solutions, a London-based supplier of software to network operators, America's decision to allow software patents means his company doesn't operate in the United States.

"The reason is that most of us are actually involved in providing solutions--we don't employ a huge legal department. We cannot afford to," Lake said in his testimony.

"Patents make it far more difficult and far more expensive and far, far slower to develop software, especially in our field, which involves bringing products from many different companies together to form a solution," he said.

Andrew Katz, a lawyer at Moorcrofts Corporate Law, is concerned that software patents won't provide sufficient protection for those who generate creative work.

"The introduction of software patents would benefit only big corporations with large patent portfolios for whom the system has the effect of raising a huge barrier to entry for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and individuals," Katz wrote.

"It would be immensely damaging for the economy as a whole, for their scope to be increased," he added.

Consumers can submit their opinions on the issue at the Protect Innovation site.

Opposition to software patents is growing across Europe. On Thursday, the four main German political parties were united in opposing their introduction.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.