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29 February 2008, 16:09

Software patent disputes costing US economy billions

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The newly-formed US initiative End Software Patents (ESP) has estimated that lawsuits over patents for computer programs cost the US economy $11.4bn each year. In addition, complaints about perceived software patent violations are increasingly filed against non-IT companies and can affect virtually any company, said a report by the new US lobby group for the status of software patents. Industrial property rights to computer programs can already be violated by setting up a web page with certain configurations, said the report.

The report cites several concrete cases in which patent-holding company Global Patent Holdings – which was bought by US licensing specialist Acacia Technologies, who deals with areas like streaming and hyperlinks, in 2004 – sued companies like OfficeMax, Kraft Foods, AutoNation or the Boca Raton Resort and Club for between $7m and $15m. The background are always patent related disputes about the individual design of these companies' advertising campaigns, said the lobbyists. Software patents endanger the US economy in general and cause a crisis of resources at the US Patent Office, said Ben Klemens, executive director of the association against corporate software patents which was launched with a slight delay.

The ESP project wants to inform the public and politicians about what it identifies as the damaging consequences of software patents. It simultaneously wants to get computer programs excluded from US monopoly rights. According to the lobbyists, the US patent system's current difficulties are not caused by the patenting process but by the eventual extension of the material to be patented. Almost every "patent troll" holds software patent while there are no patents granting industrial property rights to pharmaceutical developments, said the report.

The initiative, supported by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) and the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) has announced that it will support companies in lawsuits about overly comprehensive patents in the computer industry. Following the US supreme court's ruling concerning trivial patents and the change of direction within the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, it generally falls on the law courts to settle the industrial rights for business practices. The report stated that the US patent office's internal administrative court recently found that there is no authority known to the judges which allows software patents "per se". The ESP campaign anticipates that several court rulings to establish important boundaries for patentability will be passed next year.

(Stefan Krempl)


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