a new black bloc in the making
"The European Union is trying to legalize software patents in Europe. It is a subject which should not worry only specialists in data processing. People who are never in contact with the technical aspects of the question will also feel the consequences."
So declared Dieter Van Uytvanck, of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), an organistation which represents approximately 300 companies and 15.000 individuals.
A concrete consequence by way of example: for thousands of small software companies, these patents are like a sword of Damocles. Large corporations can bring lawsuits against them, but they do not have the means of securing patents for themselves. Another dramatic consequence is that the development of software is likely to be paralysed. Software development is generated above all by small, independent teams of programmers.
The danger is real also for the future of free software. Free software means programs that everyone can use, copy, diffuse, study, modify and improve freely. Increasing numbers of users are being convinced that free software is a solid alternative to the expensive programs of Bill Gates, the owner of Microsoft. But, in the future, the developers of free software are likely to run up against the patents.
The proposal submitted to the European Parliament wants to authorize software patents in Europe via a directive of the Union. Patents are completely different from the system of the copyright, which currently protects the developers of software. The developer of a program can protect by copyright the [code] of an idea, i.e. the written program. On the other hand, patents make it possible to obtain rights on ideas themselves. And that goes a long way. In Europe, [under the various laws of EU member states] approximately 30,000 software patents have already been granted legal status. [translator's note: the current legal status of software patents in Europe is confused, with the EU Green Party arguing that all European software patents granted since the 1973 Munich Convention which established the European Patent Office. One of the provisions of the Munich Convention specifically exempted software from patents.] One of the most revealing patents is that on progress bars. It is not the program [code] which is protected, but the idea itself.
In the United States, the online bookshop Amazon celebrates its several patents on the sale of goods via the Internet. For example, the idea to buy a gift on line and have it delivered to a friend is protected. Any Web site which wants to implement this idea must theoretically pay money to Amazon. Amazon has also patented this idea in Europe.
If the European directive is brought into force, these 30, 000 patents will legally become constraining. Everyone who wants to write a small program or to design a Web site will then be obliged initially to review the list of 30, 000 patents, or else face heavy fines for each possible violation of a patent.
In the medium of the programming, almost everyone is against the introduction of this directive, except the big multinationals, which can cross their arms and wait until the incomes of the patents fall into their erscarcelle [?]. They themselves do not have anything to fear. Among the giants of the market, the practice is to exchange patents. On the other hand, for small companies and independent developers, to register patents is impossible. To obtain a patent can take months and cost tens of thousands of euros. This is why yesterday's action of had the support of more than 1.400 companies.
The directive can still be prevented. The vote was already deferred until the end of September. In Belgium, the political world is divided about it. The VLD is favorable there, while Ecolo and Agalev invited to take part in the action of yesterday, to which also took part of the socialist members of Parliament.