The UK government yesterday flatly denied that it has backed controversial plans to impose a US-style patent system on software developers.
However, seemingly at odds with the denial, Minister for Science and Innovation Lord Sainsbury outlined the government's "firm commitment to a patent system which fosters and supports innovation in all areas of technology, including inventions which rely on software".
He insisted that the proposed European directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions, which has attracted widespread and bitter criticism from leading software developers including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, will not have an adverse impact on the software market.
According to Whitehall, the patent initiative will particularly help in relation to open source software by helping to support a strong and vibrant technology-based industry.
The many influential critics of the proposed directive, who have been engaged in a high-profile campaign against the government and MPs over the past five years, were invited yesterday to discuss their concerns at a meeting with Lord Sainsbury and Patent Office officials.
Lord Sainsbury said at the meeting: "It is vital for Europe to have a climate which supports the software industry, including the valuable role that open source has to play.
"Patents provide the confidence to invest in R&D for technological industries, and the current draft directive will ensure that Europe continues to strike the right balance and provides clarity as to what can and cannot be patented with regard to computer-implemented inventions. It does not change anything, but maintains the status quo.
"Changes in patent practise in the US in the past five years have caused concern in some areas of the computer industry, and the directive will ensure that Europe continues on its own path which is a balanced approach that creates a climate for innovation and supports open source software."
Peter Hayward, divisional director at the Patent Office, added: "The directive in its current form is vital in protecting the innovations in the European software market.
"The intention is to maintain high criteria for those seeking patent protection, and to prevent any drift in patent standards towards the current US position.
"This was a highly productive meeting which brought out a number of key issues in the discussion which we will take forward."
The Patent Office has been in consultation with the software industry since 1994. Responses to both formal and informal consultation have indicated that the law does not need to be changed, but requires clarification.
The Patent Office estimates that up to 20 per cent of patent applications received are for inventions which use software. Mere computer program listings, like lines of code, are protected by copyright but excluded from patent protection in the UK and Europe.
However, inventions in which software makes a technical contribution, like a mobile telephone or car engine management system, have always been, and will continue to be, patentable.
Hayward insisted that patents like these underpin the research and development infrastructures of many hi-tech businesses in Europe.
The directive is expected to return to the European Parliament for a second reading early next year.
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