The Government’s decision to ban software patents has been harshly criticised as likely to damage investment and “suck the lifeblood” out of the New Zealand software development industry (Computerworld print edition, 12 April 2010). What evidence is there to support these contentions? Certainly none have been put forward. Here are comments from a trio of industry-leading organisations who know a thing or two about the industry:
- The CEO of the New Zealand Computer Society, Paul Matthews, says “on balance the evidence is clear that software patents are simply too harmful to our sector, and in fact all of New Zealand, to support. We were very happy to see Software Patents removed from the Bill and will be making it very clear to Government that we would be very disappointed to see them make an unwelcome return.”
- IP lawyer and former president of the New Zealand Software Association, Wayne Hudson, says that most of NZSA’s members can’t afford to “play the patent game”, and most members are “probably apathetic” to the issue.
- The CEO of Orion Health, New Zealand’s leading software exporter, Ian McCrae, supports the ban on software patents, saying the negatives outweigh the positives (Computerworld print edition, 12 April 2010).
Add to that the New Zealand Open Source Society (which has been the leading voice against software patents), other leading firms such as Catalyst IT, and numerous others, and it is clear that a very large part of the industry is either happy or apathetic about the ban on software patents.
The cross-party Commerce Committee (chaired by former lawyer, and opposition MP, Lianne Dalziel, and deputy-chaired by National MP Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, also a lawyer) unanimously recommended the ban, accepting the submissions in favour. The Commerce Minister, Simon Power (another former lawyer) says “the Government believes the committee has dealt with the issue in a sensible manner and has found a reasonable solution”.
So who is actually unhappy about this decision?
- Microsoft New Zealand, which says it is “concerned”, although it acknowledges it doesn’t actually do software development in this country;
- Microsoft partner Intergen (a leading NZ firm), which says it damages the industry [see comments section], although it was (by its own account) not interested in putting in a submission to the Select Committee (Computerworld print edition, 12 April 2010), and according to IPONZ does not hold any patents in its name or its parent company’s name.
- NZICT (whose Tier 1 members include major patent-holders Microsoft, IBM, and HP), though it appears not to have a policy position on this apparently critical issue, did not make a submission to the Select Committee, and did not mention software patents in its 17 November 2009 submission on “New Zealand’s research, science and technology priorities”.
- Patent attorneys AJ Park and Baldwins, both of which have filed software patents on behalf of international patent holders.
So, in the main, it appears that those unhappy about the decision are limited to the local subsidiaries of major international patent holders, their association (NZICT), and their local business partners. Their opposition is understandable. There are certainly some advantages to software patents to existing holders – but there are more disadvantages and other reasons not to allow them.
Banning software patents will align New Zealand with the European Union and remove a significant threat to the local industry. The general unavailability of software patents in the EU does not seem to have held back the IT sector in that region (or indeed the development of the internet itself). No compelling arguments have been put forward to indicate that New Zealand will somehow have a different experience after the new law takes effect. Instead, as the Select Committee unanimously found and the Government has agreed, the removal of software from patentability is a positive move, and one that has support across New Zealand’s IT industry.