14th Nov 2019

Hard talk on software

Billions of euro and thousands of jobs and businesses are at stake at the European Parliament today, as members vote on the controversial software patent Directive. The debate has been ferocious and the result is still difficult to predict.

The Directive aims to simplify and harmonise patent law for "computer-implemented" inventions. In practice, this covers a wide range of applications from washing machines to mobile phones.

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Political parties and business groups are split on the issue.

Broadly speaking, the Christian Democrats and Socialists, along with big business associations are in favour. Against the Directive are the Greens, Liberals and small businesses. Due to the splits, the vote today is expected to be extremely close.

Small businesses could collapse, warn campaigners

Those arguing against the Directive claim that all types of software will become subject to patents, meaning that small businesses risk becoming swamped with licensing fees.

More importantly, software patenting can stiffle innovation for two reasons.

Firstly, small businesses and programmers lack the resources to check whether every line of code in their software programs might infringe someone else's patent, so there is less incentive to innovate.

Secondly, every programme is based on previous innovations. If all these innovations become subject to licensing fees, it will be expensive to follow up on someone else's work.

Patenting protects small business, argue others

But the pro-patenting campaign argues that it is precisely these small businesses that would be protected by patenting, because they will be able to charge licensing fees for their innovations, thus enabling them to compete against big companies like Microsoft and IBM.

The patents would only apply to computer-implemented inventions, rather than to "pure software", so innovation in programming would not be inhibited, say the pro-patent lobby.

Emotions running high

The debate has become impassioned, with leading pro-patent campaigner Arlene McCarthy (a UK socialist MEP) accusing the other side of running a disinformation campaign.

She says it is vital for the European software industry that this Directive is implemented. In an explanatory note, she writes, "at a time when many of our traditional industries are migrating to Asia, and when we Europeans are having to rely on inventiveness to earn our living, it is important for us to have the revenue secured by patents and the licensing out of ideas".

Opponents of the Directive say that it will cripple small businesses and only the large multinationals will benefit. About 100 programmers and inventors protested yesterday in Strasbourg against the Directive.

The debate is so controversial that it has already been postponed twice.

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