Open source backers start European antipatent campaign

Red Hat & MySQL among companies arguing against software patents

A group of open source companies is backing a campaign aimed at thwarting a directive before the European Parliament and the European Union Council of Ministers that could make it legal to patent software in Europe.

Launched throughout Europe last week in 12 languages, the NoSoftwarePatents (NSP) campaign is supported by US-based Linux operating system maker Red Hat and Swedish open source database vendor MySQL, as well as German software and internet services provider 1&1 Internet.

According to NSP's campaign manager, Florian Müller of SWM Software-Marketing, the terms and conditions of the campaign agreement with Red Hat, MySQL and 1&1 are confidential.

"NSP marks the first time in Europe that a group of companies has gotten together to fight against the idea of software patents in general," Mueller says. "It is very much a political problem that needs to be solved at a political level."

Representatives from Red Hat, MySQL and 1&1 could not immediately be reached for comment.

The campaign targets specifically the "Patentability of computer-implemented inventions" directive, known as the software patents directive, that has been making its way through the European Union legislative process.

The EU is attempting to establish an overarching patent standard for computer-implemented inventions, which includes but is not confined to software, bringing into line the myriad interpretations being given by different national courts throughout Europe. The issue has proved highly contentious, with supporters of open source and free software asserting that copyright laws are enough to protect business innovations and calling for all patents to be outlawed, while large businesses push for a US-style approach allowing for so-called business methods to be patented.

NSP will work in tandem with the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), a Europe-wide nonprofit association that has fought against laws permitting European software patents.

"Our campaign is meant to be complementary to FFII's efforts," Mueller says. "We explain the issue of software patents in a way that is easily understandable even to those who have just begun to learn about the subject, while FFII's website provides a lot of depth and generally presumes that you already know a lot about the subject if you go there."

Those involved with the NSP and FFII are concerned that in November, the Council of Ministers may, as the FFII says, "nod through" the proposed EU software patents directive, allowing software patents to be enforced throughout the EU on a similar basis to the US. The directive is set to return to Parliament for second reading after it passes before the Council of Ministers.

Some Members of Parliament and the Council have disagreed over the directive. The sides clashed again in May after MEPs accused the Council of discarding European Parliament amendments from September 2003 that would have protected software from being patented.

According to Mueller, the NSP campaign will attempt to influence the governments of 12 European countries on the issue of software patents in the hopes that they will apply political pressure to the EU.

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