No More Ideas – Just Patents

I don’t want to be a lawyer. I never had the slightest wish to read law but I’m finding that my exploration of technology and its consequences bring me increasingly into collision with the law.

Take copyright. I’ve been working on this recently and in my naivety, I hadn’t realised how polarised the publishing industry is when the question of reform or change is mentioned. On the one hand, there are new businesses, Internet publishers, who hold a progressive view of copyright and the law, suggesting that perhaps it could be a little more flexible, practical and fair; recognising the problems faced by the owners of intellectual property, when content appears on the Internet. On the other hand, there’s a group, I’ll call the Old Guard, who, I’ve discovered, will treat such radical or progressive ideas – take your pick - as nothing short of heresy and will apply their considerable economic weight to stifle debate.

From copyright to software patents is only a very small step and I’m struggling to keep-up with the arguments. The Economist points out: “As the value that society places on intellectual property has increased, that line has become murkier.” It adds that many companies have rushed to patent as many, often dubious, ideas as possible in an effort to erect legal obstacles to competitors.

This week, there’s a buzz over the news that Apple has filed a patent on a wireless version of the iPod. A wireless version of the iPod, is, one might think a sensible evolution of the product but why, as one observer ask “Does simply adding a wireless connection to the iPod makes it patentable?” A patent should be non-obvious, and plenty of people have been discussing the idea of a wireless iPod for years. It appears that many companies may now try to patent every new product they have, whether or not it's really an original idea or not.

Governments used to squabble over banana imports but they too are starting to realise the potential value of intellectual property and are being dragged into the patent debate, which, once again appears polarised between the United States and Europe. The European Union is naturally worried that if it does not act to protect intellectual property, then the continent will find itself at an increasing disadvantage in the knowledge economy race and the Wim Kok study for the Commission on EU growth and employment recommends 'Protecting intellectual property to promote innovation' and that : 'the EU should adopt the pending proposal on the Patenting of Computer-Implemented Inventions...'

Like many observers in Europe, I’m worried by the concept of awarding software patents which are really for "business methods", as opposed to those which are for "technical effects." Where is the dividing line between the two? Apparently, "Inventions involving the use of computers will be patentable only if they make a 'technical contribution' – which might be software which improves control of a robot arm - but excludes inventions directed at solving a business problem – which could be the software to run a financial system.

Like its cousin, copyright, to be patentable an invention must also be new and inventive" but like our present approach to copyright we appear to be in danger of creating a legal straightjacket that may suffocate and not encourage innovation at a vital time in our history.


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