Software patents to remain excluded

The Government has cleared up the recent uncertainty about software patent reform by confirming that the proposed exclusion of software patents will proceed. A press release from Commerce Minister Simon Power said:

“My decision follows a meeting with the chair of the Commerce Committee where it was agreed that a further amendment to the bill is neither necessary nor desirable.”

During its consideration of the bill, the committee received many submissions opposing the granting of patents for computer programs on the grounds it would stifle innovation and restrict competition… The committee and the Minister accept this position.

Barring any last-minute flip-flop – which is most unlikely given the Minister’s unequivocal statement – s15 of the new Patents Act, once passed, will read:

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

Lobbying

It is clear that the lobbying by pro-software patent industry group NZICT was unsuccessful, although Computerworld reports that its CEO apparently still holds out hope that “[IPONZ] will clarify the situation and bring this country’s law into line with the position in Europe and the UK, where software patents have been granted”. Hope does indeed spring eternal: the exclusion is clear and leaves no room for IPONZ to “clarify” it to permit software patents (embedded software is quite different- see below).

As I wrote earlier, it remains a mystery as to why NZICT, a professional and funded body, failed to make a single submission on the Patents Act reform process – they only had 8 years to do so – but instead engaged in private lobbying after the unanimous Select Committee decision had been made. It also did not (and still does not) have a policy paper on the subject, nor did it mention software patents once in its 17 November 2009 submission on “New Zealand’s research, science and technology priorities”. It is not as though the software patent issue had not been signalled – it was raised in the very first document in 2002. Despite this silence, it claims that software patents are actually critical to the IT industry it says it represents.

The New Zealand Computer Society, on the other hand, did put in a submission and has articulated a clear and balanced view representing the broader ICT community. It said today that “we believe this is great news for software innovation in New Zealand”.

Left vs right?

Is there a political angle to this? While some debate has presumed an open-vs-proprietary angle (a false premise) some I have chatted with have seen it as a left-vs-right issue, something Stephen Bell also alluded to (in a different context) in this interesting article.

Thankfully, it appears not. The revised Patents Bill was unanimously supported by the Commerce Committee, comprising members National, Labour, Act, the Greens, and Maori parties. It reported to Commerce Minister Simon Power (National) and Associate Minister Rodney Hide (Act). Unlike the previous Government’s Copyright Act reform, post-committee industry lobbying has not turned the Government.

What about business? NZICT apart, the exclusion of software patents has received the wide support of the New Zealand ICT industry, including (publicly) leading software exporters Orion Health and Jade, which as Paul Matthews notes represent around 50% of New Zealand’s software exports. The overwhelming majority of NZCS members support the change. Internationally, many venture capitalists and other non-bleeding-heart-liberal types have spoken out against software patents, on business grounds.

Some pro-software patent business owners might be miffed at a perceived lack of support from National or Act, perhaps assuming that software patents are a “right” and are valuable for their businesses. The reality is that only a handful of New Zealand companies have New Zealand software patents (I did see a figure quoted somewhere – will try to find it). Yes, they can be valuable if you have them but that is a separate issue (and remember, under the new Act no one loses existing patents). A capitalist, free market economy (and the less restrictive the better) abhors monopolies, and this decision benefits the majority of businesses in New Zealand. Strong IP protection is essential in modern society – including patents – (see my article “Protecting IP in a post-software patent environment“) but the extent of statutory protection when being reviewed will always come down to a perceived balance, not just for the minority holders of a patent (a private monopoly) but for the much larger majority artificially prevented from competing and innovating by that monopoly.

I have always taken pains to note, like NZCS, that there are pros and cons to software patents. And I am a fan of patents generally. Patents are good! But for software patents, the cons outweigh the pros. There are sound business reasons to exclude them. This specific part of the reform targets one specific area, has unanimous political party support (how rare is that?), and wide local business support. The last thing it can be seen as is an anti-business, left-wing policy (if it was, I’d have to oppose it!)

Embedded software

Inventions containing embedded software will remain, rightly, not excluded under the Patents Bill. Minister Power confirmed that IPONZ will develop guidelines for embedded software, which hopefully will set some clear parameters for applicants.

Software is essential to many inventions, and while that software itself will not be patentable, the invention it is a component of still may be. Some difficult conceptual issues can arise, but in most cases I don’t expect difficulties would arise. This “exception” (if it can be described as such) will not undermine the general exclusion for software patents.