Software patents to be banned in New Zealand

The Select Committee examining the proposed Patents Bill has recommended that software patents be excluded from patentabilty (full report, 1.6MB PDF):

We recommend amending clause 15 to include computer programs among inventions that may not be patented. We received many submissions concerning the patentability of computer programs. Under the Patents Act 1953 computer programs can be patented in New Zealand provided they produce a commercially useful effect. Open source, or free, software has grown in popularity since the 1980s. Protecting software by patenting it is inconsistent with the open source model, and its proponents oppose it. A number of submitters argued that there is no “inventive step” in software development, as “new” software invariably builds on existing software. They felt that computer software should be excluded from patent protection as software patents can stifle innovation and competition, and can be granted for trivial or existing techniques. In general we accept this position.

It is great to see the committee has accepted the core arguments put forward by a range of submitters (including myself) and rejected the opposing views put forward against those arguments. The mention of open source is significant and quite likely the first time it has directly influenced policy.

The actual proposed amendment implementing the ban is straightforward:

15(3A) A computer program is not a patentable invention.

The committee has not attempted to define “computer program”, which is sensible and consistent with the use of that term in the Copyright Act 1994. The amendment is not wide enough that it will necessarily prevent someone attempting to dress up what would otherwise be a software patent application as a business method patent. But it will be highly effective in most cases, and should prevent the worst examples of software patents granted (or threatened) overseas from being replicated in New Zealand (e.g. 1-click).

The House will need to vote on the proposed changes to the Bill.

The committee also discussed embedded software:

While the bill would provide adequate incentives for innovation, however, we are aware of New Zealand companies who have invested in a significant number of software-related inventions, involving embedded software.* We sought advice on the approach
taken in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and the United States, and whether legislation that would enable “embedded software” to be patentable might be practicable. After careful consideration we concluded that developing a clear and definitive distinction between embedded and other types of software is not a simple matter; and that, for the sake of clarity, a simple approach would be best. We received advice that our recommendation to include computer programs among the inventions that may not be patented would be unlikely to prevent the granting of patents for inventions involving embedded software.

Software in any form would likely be caught by the proposed section 15(3A), but the final sentence of the above quote reflects the fact that it will not be possible, or practical, in many cases to separate the embedded software from an invention. It is important to note that the proposed Bill does not expressly endorse embedded software patents, but as with business method patents each application will need to be assessed on its merits.

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