Software Group Seeks EU Patent Reform

By Matthew Broersma  |  Posted 2005-03-11

Software Group Seeks EU Patent Reform

The BSA has called for reform to Europes patent system, in the same week that Microsoft put forward a U.S. patent reform plan and called for harmonization among international patent regimes.

The Business Software Alliance Europe on Monday suggested a number of reforms designed largely to make it easier for SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) to obtain and defend patents.

Some of the proposals, such as ending fee diversion, are identical to steps proposed by Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith during a daylong seminar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The reforms address the deeper problems underlying discontent over the patent process, a BSA spokesman said.

The spokesman said the BSAs proposals are separate from Microsofts announcement.

Click here to read more about Microsofts proposals for reforming the U.S. patent system.

Microsoft has said it is working with the BSA and other industry associations on its U.S. initiatives.

IT patents, and particularly software patents, are coming under increasing scrutiny, with a wide range of companies citing problems they consider to be inherent in a liberal patent system.

In Europe, the recent controversy surrounding patent law has called attention to the differences between regimes in the United States and Europe, and has led to a power struggle between different branches of European Union government.

At the heart of the argument is how patents should be best used to protect IT companies and spur innovation, with open-source organizations and smaller businesses arguing that software should be protected by copyright instead of patents.

Software patents disproportionately benefit the large companies that can afford to build up intellectual-property stockpiles and defend them in court, critics say.

Next Page: The BSAs seven proposals.

The BSAs seven proposals

The BSAs initiatives take a different point of view, arguing that the solution is to give SMEs greater access to the patent system. The BSAs seven proposals would:

  • create an "SME Committee" to monitor SME participation in the process
  • give SMEs a discount on EPO (European Patent Office) and national patent office fees
  • systematically collect prior art data to improve the quality of software-related patents
  • track patent data, particularly patents owned by SMEs
  • establish a "quality control" team to oversee the patent process
  • speed up the patent opposition process, a way of resolving patent disputes without recourse to litigation, and
  • reduce or eliminate fee diversion, which allows member states to divert patent fees for non-patent purposes.

    Microsoft is also calling for an end to fee diversion in the United States.

    The companys call for an administrative process for resolving patent disputes specifically made a reference to Europes opposition process.

    "Such a procedure already exists in the European system and could help weed out questionable patents before they become the subject of costly and time-consuming litigation," Microsofts Smith said, according to a prepared text of his speech.

    Critics say such attempts to reform and harmonize international patents ignore the fact that some international differences are positive.

    For example, software patents are not currently enforceable in Europe, and prominent figures such as Linus Torvalds argue such patents would cripple open-source development if legalized.

    Read more here about how the EUs proposed law on software-related patents could harm open-source developers.

    Instead of giving SMEs greater access to patents, reformers should be working to keep patents out of the software industry altogether, said anti-patent organizer Florian Mueller.

    "Even a patent system thats reformed along the lines of the BSAs suggestions would still be negative for innovation and competitiveness in the software industry," he said in an e-mail interview.

    The reforms would make little difference to SMEs, he said.

    Even if the EPOs fees were waived altogether, they amount to only about 10 percent of the cost of a European patent, he said: "Even if that 10 percent were waived completely, it wouldnt amount to much."

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