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Time Out Bengaluru - Software Patenting

by Pranesh Prakash last modified Jan 16, 2013 06:39 AM
An article by Akhila Seetharaman published as a precursor to the national public meeting on software patents held on 4th in Bangalore.

Original article on Time Out Bengaluru website

In August this year, the US Patents and Trademarks Office granted Microsoft ownership of “page up” and “page down”. So in theory, no other company can scroll without permission and acknowledgement to Microsoft in monetary terms.

A number of seemingly ubiquitous software ideas have been patented: the use of tabs to shift from one hyperlink to another on a web page, the “Add to Shopping Cart” function that appears on every online store, automated online loan requests, and even reducing image size to make a webpage load faster.

“Most companies register defensive patents to protect themselves, not offensive ones,” said Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society. “Not many actively pursue patent infringement, but it is still very scary for a small-time entrepreneur.”

At a time when the Indian Patent Office is in the process of putting together a new Manual of Patent Practice and Procedure, the Centre for Internet and Society is holding a one-day consultation on the issue of software patenting in the city. Participants include the Delhi Science Forum, RedHat, IT for Change, Open Space, as well as the Alternative Law Forum.

From mobile phone technology to pacemakers in healthcare, everybody is dependent on software. “Each software patent is a 17-year monopoly on an idea,” said Anivar Aravind of the Free Software User Group Bangalore.

“If formulaic Hindi films were protected by patent laws, we would be able to make only one film,” joked Abraham. The system of software patenting wipes out smaller businesses and innovation, he said. “Software, like poetry and literary works, is already protected by copyright. After all, Bill Gates made his fortunes from copyright and not patents. But many software companies are trying to get additional protection.”

Copyright and patents are both part of intellectual property rights, but copyright restricts the expression of an idea while patents restrict the idea itself, according to Abraham. Under a patenting regime, even before a kid writes one line of code he has to read many patents.”

Kiran Patil of Turtle Linux Lab agreed. “If every little thing is patented, there’s nothing a developer can do.” He cited Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement and the GNU (a recursive acronym for GNU’s Not Unix) Project, who likened patents to explosive devices: “Software patents are the software project’s equivalent of land mines: each design-decision carries a risk of stepping on a patent, which can destroy your project.”

Worst of all, the world sees those with patents as the innovators, said Patil, which, according to him, is a big misconception.

While corporate giants like Microsoft and IBM fix exchange deals through cross-licensing, smaller companies get left out of the loop entirely. Despite not having many patents of their own, several Indian software companies support software patenting because they have huge contracts with the large software companies in the United States and Europe who do.

The Indian Patent Act of 1970 did not allow for software patents until 2002 when an amendment, which ironically excluded “computer programmes per se” from the scope of patenting, was introduced.

The amendment implied that while computer programmes themselves were not eligible for patents, programmes used in combination with hardware were. The Act was further amended through an ordinance in 2005 to narrow the scope of software excluded, but the ordinance was rejected by the Indian

Parliament and the Act effectively reverted to what it was after the 2002 amendment. “The law has left it somewhat ambiguous,” said Abraham. “Nobody is sure what can or cannot be patented. Many people are using the clause “computer programmes per se” to get pure software patents.”

This occurs either due to incompetence among patent officers or by accident, he said. “While many of the patent officers have expertise in the area of industrial inventions or medical inventions, very few know enough about software patents at the moment.”

-- Akhila Seetharaman

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