Europe Votes for Innovation, Not Patent Laws

Opinion: The fight to keep software patents out of Europe could change the patent landscape in the United States, too.

The last few months have been mainly filled with bad news for those who support innovation in technology and fight against bad laws and policies that mainly serve to prevent innovation.

The Supreme Courts Grokster decision was a huge blow. (Ill give you my take on that decision and what we should be doing about it in an upcoming column.) But the near-constant march of ridiculous patent claim after ridiculous patent claim has actually been worse.

Leading the charge in this flood of give-me-a-break patents is, not surprisingly, our old friend Amazon. (Amazon is, of course, headed by Jeff Bezos, who claims to be a proponent of patent reform—yeah, thats the ticket.) Among the groundbreaking innovations that Amazon has patented are a method to deliver gifts that someone has ordered online and the method of looking at what someone has bought to figure out what else they might like to buy.

Yep, things were looking pretty bleak, and the fight to keep software patents out of Europe looked like it was going to go down for the count as well.

But then finally it happened: good news! The members of the European Parliament stood their ground, showed up in force and soundly defeated the software patents proposal (648-14, with 18 abstentions). Phew.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about the EUs decision.

Theres no getting around what a big win this is for those of us who see software patents mainly as a weapon to stop true software innovation, a weapon that is mainly used by large companies that want to protect their monopolies and by sleazy patent-trolling outfits that dont invent anything besides new and shameless legal attacks on real and often small inventors.

Lots of people deserve credit for this victory. I salute Poland, for its delaying tactics that prevented software patents from becoming law and gave the Parliament and others time to recognize the threat; organizations such as the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, which led the fight against patents in Europe; and the members of the Parliament who fought the most aggressively against the patents. I even have to thank the European Commission, which was so dismissive and contemptuous of the wishes of Parliamentarians that it basically dared them to stop software patents through a vote.

But this fight is far from over. The forces that want software patents in Europe are too big, too rich and too determined to give up completely. Theyll be working behind the scenes to get software patents back on the European agenda, probably in the guise of a reasonable compromise. In addition, I expect them to work hard to get more individual European countries to implement U.S.-style software patents. Clearly, the groups that stopped software patents in Europe cant sit back and enjoy their win for too long.

But it will take time before software patents get anywhere close to passing across all of Europe, and we in the United States should move quickly to take advantage of this period. Now is the time to get our representatives in Congress to enact some much-needed patent reform—and to do so quickly.

Nowadays, almost everyone, even large software companies, agrees that big patent reforms are needed for software. Start with this statement. Then mention how U.S. companies are competing with European companies that dont need to deal with the overbearing and broad software patents that U.S. companies face under the current system. Bring up how the current broad and broken system in this country rewards sleazy stealth tactics and legal attacks while stifling innovation by U.S. companies.

Follow up by talking about the brain drain that will inevitably occur as the best and brightest U.S. developers head to Europe, where they can build their groundbreaking applications without constantly consulting a lawyer and without fear of their true innovations running afoul of overly broad patents.

/zimages/4/28571.gifHow will the EU decision affect business and open source? Click here to read more.

If presented correctly, these arguments should work on representatives of all parties. Then maybe we can fix the U.S. software patent system (and possibly even get rid of business method patents). And then we can get back to the business of innovating again.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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