A new European directive could put software writers at a serious risk of legal action!

If the Dutch govenment get their own way at the end of their presidency over the European parliament, they will push through controversial law that the European Parliament has rejected, has little support from national governments and will leave millions of Europeans facing the possibility of court cases against them.

Sadly, it’s getting little attention because it only really affect programmers: They want to patent computer programers.

Bill Thompson recently said:

After all, how much fuss can you generate about the Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions, and the way it amends Article 52 of the 1973 European Patent Convention?

This could quite literally be disaster for programmers across Europe, in the same way as it is in the US.

A prime example of how stupid this would be is Amazon. In the US because of Software Patent law you can not build a shopping cart system that stores your credit card details, so you can pay without having to enter them again, unless of course Amazon give you permission! Why? Because Amazon hold the patent on “one-click” online purchase!

A small idea, but Amazon made it to the patent office before anyone and now owns the idea!

This goes to the heart of the European project, and even those who do not care about software or patents should be worried. If coders are treated like this today, who is to say that it will not be you tomorrow?

Computer code is already protected by copyright
More directly, once software patents are granted then any programmer will have to worry that the code they are writing is infringing someone else’s patent.

This is not about stealing software, as code is already protected by copyright. Patents are not copyright, but something much stronger.

A patent gives the owner the right to stop anyone else using their invention, even if the other person invented it separately.

What about Linux?

Much of the really useful software we use every day, programs like the Apache web server, the GNU/Linux operating system and the fearsomely popular Firefox browser, is developed outside company structures by people who do not have legal departments to check for patent infringements.

The damage to software will not happen overnight, of course. If the directive goes through it has to be written into national laws and then there will be a steady stream of legal actions against small companies and open source products.

Eventually someone will decide to attack Linux directly, probably with some secret funding from one or two large players.

The new directive will limit innovation by forcing programmers to spend time checking for patent infringements or simply avoiding working in potentially competitive areas. And it will damage Europe’s computer industry.

We can only hope that the Council of Ministers has the integrity and strength to reject this bad law.