Tuesday

2nd Jun 2020

Opinion

The net said no to patent directive

It reads like the storyline for "Asterix in the European Union". The joint lobbying armies of IBM, Microsoft, SAP, Intel, Siemens, Nokia, Philips, Ericsson, Alcatel and various patent offices couldn't push a controversial directive through against the stiff resistance of sparsely funded and formally untrained freedom fighters.

After a landslide vote (648-32) in the European Parliament's second reading, our camp of software patent critics rejoiced. The others resorted to spin-doctoring.

Read and decide

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  • I never planned on becoming a campaigner or lobbyist (Photo: Florian Mueller)

For me, this outcome marks the unexpected happy end of an unexpected involvement.

In April of last year, I first went to the European Parliament to attend a conference on software patents. I never planned on becoming a campaigner or lobbyist.

I got drawn into it for one reason: I always want to know that if I independently create a piece of software, I will surely be entitled to sell it.

The way the patent system works, that ownership (which most professions take for granted) is not guaranteed.

You can spend years on a project, but if somebody previously registered some key functionality at the patent office, then it does not count that you have actually not stolen anything. You are at the mercy of the patent holder, period.

For some industries, that undeserved injustice may be the exception, and the protection of the inventor against plagiarism may be the rule.

It takes a lot to understand why, but my comrades-in-arms and I are convinced that software patents are very negative on the bottom line.

Not only to us, but to the entire economy and society except for a few people and companies. Based on that firm belief, many colleagues of mine became politically active for the first time.

Approachable politicians

After I got involved, I found politicians to be far more approachable than I would have thought. That was the single most encouraging experience.

Two months after that conference in Brussels, I had the opportunity to make a statement to Germany's minister of justice. So I wanted to walk through more of those open doors and deliver our message.

There were some disappointments, too.

Unfortunately, various politicians confirmed that prejudice of untruthfulness.

I am still angry that the European Commission and most member state governments consistently denied that the proposed directive would have allowed for software patents. They designed the directive from the ground up in such a way as to disguise its actual intention.

When I first read the text of the directive, I thought it was reasonable. After learning more about the subject, I realised that it was a "Patent-kin Village".

Most politicians and journalists were misled the same way that I originally was, and if those didn't take the time to understand it, then it was the word of the commission and the European Council against mine.

That was a real annoyance until SAP - a pure software company - advertised its endorsement of the council's common position. Dankeschön!

Funding

Another behaviour I couldn't understand was that of many companies which would have been affected by the directive, at least potentially.

Some fairly small companies went to extreme lengths in supporting the FFII (an NGO that opposes software patents), but I thought (and still feel) that medium-sized companies with tens or hundreds of millions of revenues should, with maybe two or three exceptions, have committed much more funding.

It beats me why the owners and CEOs of most of those companies decided to leave their defence entirely to idealists, while the pro-patent lobby afforded high-profile individuals and glitzy events.

It seems so logical to me that there is far higher leverage in influencing a political decision than in dealing with individual lawsuits that could hit you later on.

The political line of defence comes without guarantees, but it's the same with litigation and still a company would seriously defend itself in court. The difference is just that the EU doesn't send a formal notice to potentially affected companies that they are on trial and must appoint a defender.

The net said no

Still our side was ultimately able to win. David had a slingshot when he fought Goliath, the Gauls had the magic potion to beat the Romans to a pulp in the Asterix books, and we had the internet.

With the same resource disadvantage ten years ago, we would not have had a prayer.

However, we had a medium available that enabled us to mobilise a large number of citizens who contacted their elected representatives. Our resistance movement had one huge network that connected people all throughout and beyond the EU via websites, wikis, mailing lists, and IRC chats.

Some IT giants may have dwarfed our financial resources, but on the internet, we outclassed them by an even greater factor.

You can find out for yourself how many links to a certain website have been indexed by Google (e.g. by searching for link:www.ffii.org).

As I am writing these lines, EICTA's website www.patents4innovation.org has 11 external referrals, Microsoft-sponsored www.campaignforcreativity.org has 20.

In contrast, www.ffii.org has more than 6,000, and www.nosoftwarepatents.com has so many that modesty forbids my mentioning the number.

The net said no to the proposed directive. That is why so many citizens contacted their MEPs. Ultimately, many parliamentarians put the concerns of their voters above the propaganda of lobbyists."

Good old democracy with a new platform.

The author founded the NoSoftwarePatents.com campaign last year. You can reach him at florian.mueller@nosoftwarepatents.com

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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