Patents Bill delay questioned

NZ Rise president Don Christie disappointed with delays on the passing of Patents Bill

NZRise president Don Christie says he is disappointed with delays to the passing of the Patents Bill and questions some of the explanation given by Commerce Minister Craig Foss.

“We keep hearing that this Bill is important for the knowledge economy,” Christie said. “What the minister is saying now is different from what his predecessor, Simon Power was telling us; he was writing letters [to NZRise] last year, telling us the government was pushing the Bill through.”

Despite having been in the Parliamentary process since 2008, the Patents Bill still languishes well down in the Order Paper (No 47 as at Monday April 2), and is awaiting Parliament’s consideration of the Commerce select committee’s report, followed by the Bill’s second reading.

The committee’s report contained a contentious clause barring patents on software. Though there has been some attempt at qualifying this to admit patents on software-controlled machinery and the like, the core clause states “a computer program is not a patentable invention.”

Foss says the delay is a result of the size and complexity of the Bill and the pressure of other legislation. “The government has a full legislative programme, but is committed to making further progress on the Patents Bill,” he says.

“The government is still considering issues arising from the select committee report and is working to ensure New Zealand’s intellectual property legislation takes account of international developments, and is relevant in the 21st century,” he says, pointing out that the Patents Act has not been amended since 1953. “The legislation is complex and the government is committed to a thorough examination of all proposed changes recommended by the select committee.”

Christie says he can to some extent understand the “pressure of other legislation” argument, but not the argument about complexity. “All the complex work has been done,” he says, including a detailed set of guidelines from the Intellectual Property Office of NZ on which products consisting partly of software might qualify for patent.

“I still suspect there are some powerful outside interests slowing it down,” Christie says, pointing to comments over the past year by US politicians favouring software patents. Even in the US opinion is moving against those forces, he says, with recent Supreme Court decisions discounting patents on mathematical algorithms and business methods.

“Any software developer worth his salt will tell you software is just mathematics,” he says.

The Patents Bill was a significant topic of discussion in an InternetNZ debate ahead of the last general election and some of the delegates in recent weeks have been questioning the continued slowness of the Bill’s progress.

As discussed at the time of the debate, there have been rumours that the Bill has been deliberately held back as potentially relevant to concessions that may be made as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Foss’s staff passed that part of our query on to Trade Minister Tim Groser’s office. Groser did not directly address the rumour and replied simply: “Progress on the Patents Bill is dependent on the wider legislative programme.”

Last week New Zealand Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews says that while there is no firm evidence that the Patents Bill has been “put on ice” owing to negotiation of the TPPA, he says the possibility must give cause for concern.

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