Opposing The European Software Patent Directive
Stallman and Nick Hill
The European Union software patent directive, which this 2003 article
opposed, was ultimately dropped by its own supporters after facing
lots of opposition. However, they later found another way to impose
software patents on most of Europe: through fine print in
The computer industry is threatened by a Wild West-style land grab. The
biggest, richest companies are being assisted by governments to take
unassailable exclusive control of the ideas that programmers combine to
make a program.
Our society is becoming more dependent on information technology. At
the same time, centralised control over and ownership of the
information technology field is increasing, and mega-corporations with
law-given dominion over our computers could take away our freedoms and
democracy. With an effective monopoly on modern software, the largest
grabbers of the “land” will have control over what we can
ask our computers to do, and control over production and distribution
of information on the net, through monopolies that the EU plans to
The monopolies are patents, each one restricting use of one or several
of these software ideas. We call them “software patents”
because they restrict what we programmers can make software do. How do
these monopolies work? If you wish to use your computer as a word
processor, it must follow instructions that tell it how to act like a
word processor. This is analogous to instructions found on a musical
score, which tell an orchestra how to play a symphony. The
instructions are not simple. They are made up of thousands of smaller
instructions, much like sequences of notes and chords. A symphonic
score embodies hundreds of musical ideas, and a computer program uses
hundreds or thousands of software ideas. Since each idea is abstract,
there are often different ways to describe it: thus, some ideas can be
patented in multiple ways.
The US, which has had software patents since the 1980s, shows what this can
do to development of everyday software. For example, in the US there are 39
monopoly claims over a standard way of showing video using software
techniques (the MPEG
Since a single piece of software can embody thousands of ideas together,
and those ideas are arbitrary in scope and abstract in nature, writing
software will only be worthwhile for those who are rich and have a large
software monopoly portfolio: those with the war chest and clout to fight
off claims that might otherwise sink a business. In the US, the average
cost of defending against an invalid patent claim is $1.5 million. The
courts favour the wealthy, so even when a small business gets a few
patents, it will find them useless.
Software patents are being claimed at a tremendous rate in the US. If they
become legal in Europe, most of those US patents will be extended to
Europe also. This is likely to have a devastating effect on European
software development—leading to job losses, a poorer economy, more
expensive computer use, and less choice and less freedom for the end user.
The advocates of software patents in Europe, and the probable beneficiaries
of them, are the patent bureaucracy (more influence on more areas of life),
patent lawyers (more business from both plaintiffs and defendants), and
computer mega-corporations such as IBM and Microsoft.
Foremost among the software mega-corporations is Microsoft. Even as
part of the European commission investigates Microsoft for
monopolistic practices, another part is planning to hand it an
unending series of overlapping 20-year monopolies. Bill Gates wrote in
his Challenges and Strategy memo of May 16 1991 that
If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of
today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry
would be at a complete standstill today. The solution … is
patenting as much as we can … A future start-up with no patents
of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to
Today Microsoft hopes to parlay software patents into a permanent
monopoly on many areas of software.
The European commission says its proposed directive on
computer-implemented inventions will disallow software patents. But
the text was actually written by the Business Software Alliance, which
represents the largest software companies. (The commission didn't
admit this—we detected it.) It contains vague words that we
suspect are designed to open the door for software patents.
The text says that computer-related patents must make a
“technical contribution”; the commission says that means
“no software patents”. But “technical” can be
interpreted in many ways. The European patent office is already
registering software patents of dubious legal validity, defying the
treaty that governs it and the governments that established it.
Operating under those words, it will stretch them to allow all kinds
of software patents.
Arlene McCarthy, MEP
for north-west England, has been a key figure promoting and acting as
rapporteur for this proposed directive. The cosmetic changes she has
so far proposed do nothing to solve the problem. However, the
cultural affairs commission's amendment that defines
“technical” will assure British and European software
developers that they will not risk a lawsuit simply by writing and
distributing a software package.
The vague words drafted by the mega-corporations must be replaced with
clear, decisive wording. Wording that will ensure that our information
future will not be hijacked by the interests of a few rich organisations.
to http://www.softwarepatents.co.uk [Archived Page] to learn more, and then talk with the MEPs from