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10 December 2012, 15:58

Google and Facebook join forces against software patents

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Patents icon In a brief submitted to a US Court of Appeals, various major internet and IT companies have stated that the combination of an abstract idea and a computer should not be eligible for patent protection. "Many computer-related patent claims just describe an abstract idea at a high level of generality and say to perform it on a computer or over the internet", said the brief that was submitted by companies such as Google and Facebook on Friday. Other signatories include Dell, Intuit, Homeaway, Rackspace, Red Hat and Zynga.

The companies argued that such bare-bones claims grant exclusive rights over the abstract idea itself with no limit on how the idea is implemented, and that granting patent protection for such claims would impair, not promote, innovation. In their 30-page brief to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the signatories explain that this often grants exclusive rights to people who haven't themselves contributed significantly to a development, punishing those who later create innovation and cannot market the concrete applications of these abstract ideas unless they pay royalties.

The companies conclude that such broad, essentially trivial patents are a "plague in the high tech sector". "It is easy to think of abstract ideas about what a computer or website should do", said the signatories. In their view, the "difficult, valuable, and often groundbreaking part of online innovation" lies in designing, analysing, building, and deploying the interface, software, and hardware to implement that idea in a way that is "useful in daily life".

The brief refers to the high-profile "CLS Bank vs. Alice" software patent dispute. Early last autumn, the Court of Appeals in Washington agreed to fully reopen the case. One of the reasons for its decision is that the court wants to develop a new test to establish whether a "computer-implemented invention" is an unpatentable abstract idea.

The dispute revolves around various US patents held by Alice Corporation that define a basic concept for a computer-based financial transaction where an intermediary system guarantees that all parties involved in a financial transaction have fulfilled their contractual duties. The defendant, CLS Bank, claims that the patented feature can also be carried out with pen and paper by an arbitrary intermediary, and says that the procedure is commonplace and even antiquated. Google and Red Hat have already taken a similar positionPDF in this dispute before. Hewlett-Packard and Twitter were also involved at that time.

Meanwhile, the planned unitary patent continues to cause commotion across Europe. Following widespread criticism from scientists, legal experts and medium-sized businesses, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has asked the European Parliament to delay the vote that is planned for Tuesday. Members of parliament "must not saddle Europe's innovators with a rotten compromise", said the foundation, adding that the current proposal is widely known to have serious legal and practical problems, and that it must not be rushed through parliament for these reasons.

(Stefan Krempl / djwm)

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