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Software Patents: The Government Says…

27th Feb 2007

A while back I put my name to a petition against software patents in the UK on the e-petitions site. While I did think it was a bit odd to petition against something that isn't the case — the UK doesn't allow software patents anyway — I was curious to see what the government would have to say about it. Here's the response:

The Government remains committed to its policy that no patents should exist for inventions which make advances lying solely in the field of software. Although certain jurisdictions, such as the US, allow more liberal patenting of software-based inventions, these patents cannot be enforced in the UK.

The test used to discern between patentable and non-patentable subject matter in the UK has recently been clarified by the courts, and is applied rigorously by the Patent Office. Under this test, the true nature of the advance being claimed in a patent application must be determined, and if this advance lies solely in the field of software, or another non-technical field such as methods of doing business, the patent will not be granted. If the advance being made by an invention does lie in a technical field, it must also be non-obvious and sufficiently clearly described for the invention to be reproduced before a patent will be granted by the Patent Office.

The recently published Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, an independent review commissioned by the Government, recommended that patent rights should not be extended to cover pure software, business methods and genes. The Government will implement those recommendations for which it is responsible, and will therefore continue to exclude patents from areas where they may hinder innovation: including patents which are too broad, speculative, or obvious, or where the advance they make lies in an excluded area such as software.

The Gowers Review of Intellectual Property is often mentioned in these responses, and I'm happy to say that most of the IP-related petitions have recieved favourable responses from the government, often saying “The Gowers Review recommended this, so we were doing it anyway!” The main one that springs to mind is that there are plans to add to UK copyright law a concept similar to “fair use” in US law allowing personal copies for format shifting and backup purposes.