UK to probe 'patent thickets'

Companies who use patents to hamper innovation may be a target for the UK, as a review of intellectual property law kicks off
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Andrew Gowers, the man leading a wide-ranging review into the UK's intellectual property legislation, has vowed to address the issue of companies abusing the patent system.

Speaking at a seminar in London on Thursday, Gowers acknowledged that there are concerns that the present system may hamper competition.

"There is an accusation of a rise of companies sitting defensively on patents," said Gowers. "There are patent thickets, which are a complex web of patents which may stunt invention and discourage research and development."

Gowers, a former editor of the Financial Times, was chosen by the government late last year to lead an independent review into intellectual-property rights in the UK. This featured in the Labour Party manifesto in the last election, which included a commitment to "modernise copyright and other forms of intellectual property so that they are appropriate for the digital age".

Last year, the European Commission came close to approving a directive that would have made pure software applications patentable across Europe. Although the directive was eventually abandoned, campaigners fear that similar legislation could be introduced in the future.

Microsoft also attended the seminar, and indicated that it would support changes to the existing laws around intellectual property.

"Reform is needed, especially in the US, to curb the excessive litigation costs," said Chris Parker, senior director of law and corporate affairs at Microsoft.

Last year, Microsoft estimated that it spends around $100m per year on patent lawsuits. This only makes a small dent in its multi-billion dollar revenues, but illustrates how hard it could be for companies with smaller turnovers to defend themselves.

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