Software firms fight EU software patents

By Mary Lisbeth D'Amico
InfoWorld Electric

Posted at 12:20 PM PT, Oct 22, 1999
Three European software companies have asked the European Commission to think carefully before approving a proposed directive that would allow software programs to be patented.

The companies -- German Linux distributor SuSE GmbH; Infomatec AG, a small Augsburg, Germany-based software house; and an Italian open-source software company called Prosa -- met last week with Commission representatives in Brussels to present their viewpoint, according to Hartmut Pilch, a software programmer who represented SuSE at the meeting.

SuSE's chief executive officer, Roland Dyroff, also sent a letter to the Commission, warning that moves to change the status of computer programs as they relate to patent law could present "a serious danger" to the European software industry, according to Carsten Fischer, a spokesman for SuSE, in Nuremburg, Friday.

Officials at the Commission could not be immediately reached for comment.

The moves are a result of efforts by European software lobby groups to protest the application of patent law to software. Currently, only copyright law applies to software programs in Europe. However, the Commission is expected over the next year to look at the issue as it draws up a directive on protection of inventions, Pilch said. Pilch is also a member of EuroLinux, an alliance of commercial companies and open-source associations lobbying against moves to patent software.

The directive currently includes software programs in a list of items that are not exempt from patenting, Pilch said. That conflicts with current practice in Europe as laid down by the European Patent Convention (EPC), a more than 20-year old law that specifically exempts software from patents, he said. The European Patent Authorities are also considering whether to revamp the EPC to include software, another source of concern to the EuroLinux lobbyists.

In his letter to the Commission, Dyroff said he lauds the attempt to reward programmers for their software innovations, but doubts that applying patents will achieve that goal.

"Even a medium-sized company such as SuSE could not carry the cost of patent research, nor the risk of a patent infringement law suit," said Dyroff in the letter.

At the meeting with members of the Commission last week, Pilch showed those gathered a box containing SuSe's current version of Linux, and associated open-source products from European software firms.

The SuSE version of Linux contains 1,300 programs, each of which has some 1,000 algorithms, meaning SuSE would have to check more than 1 million algorithms, Pilch told them.

In particular, open-source software advocates foresee patent laws putting a serious cramp in programmers efforts to write new software programs, because they would fear infringing on someone else's patent.

Particularly in the United States, where it is legal to patent software, patent infringement claims keep software companies quite busy. On Thursday, officials at a small Palo Alto, Calif.-based software firm called TecKnowledge said the company has countersued SAP in a patent dispute, after SAP sued it on two counts of patent infringement over technology that facilitates knowledge-based software systems, Teknowledge said .

The European Commission, in Brussels, Belgium, is at

Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a Munich, Germany, correspondent for the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affilate.

From, 99/10/29.