New Zealand To Ban Software Patents 'As Such'; Tries To Pin Down What On Earth That Means
from the can-we-just-pass-a-law-now? dept
Few patent sagas have been as fraught as New Zealand's attempt to revise its laws to exclude software. Techdirt first wrote about this move in March 2010, and again in June 2010, when it seemed that lobbyists had convinced the New Zealand government to reverse its position and allow software patents. Then, a month after that, word was that software would indeed be unpatentable. Things went quiet for a while, until a new version of the proposed law was unveiled by New Zealand's Commerce Minister Craig Foss, apparently weakening the bill once more:
His amendment has changed some crucial wording in the bill that some say has the government moving away from excluding software from being patented (as per select committee recommendations), to parts of the bill being sufficiently vague that software may indeed become patentable. Clause 10a of the supplementary order paper 120 was amended to read: "..prevents anything from being an invention for the purposes of this Act only to the extent that a patent or an application relates to a computer program as such"
The two words "as such" tacked on at the end there are precisely the same as those that are found in Article 52 of the European Patent Convention that also excludes software patents:
(1) European patents shall be granted for any inventions, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are susceptible of industrial application.
As that makes clear, "programs for computers" are not regarded as inventions, and are therefore ineligible for software patents in Europe. But that only applies to programs "as such": the trouble is, nobody really knows what those two words mean in this context, which has allowed lawyers to obtain thousands of software patents in the EU on the grounds that they weren't software patents "as such".
(2) The following in particular shall not be regarded as inventions within the meaning of paragraph 1:
(c) schemes, rules and methods for performing mental acts, playing games or doing business, and programs for computers;
(3) Paragraph 2 shall exclude the patentability of the subject-matter or activities referred to therein only to the extent to which a European patent application or European patent relates to such subject-matter or activities as such.
The appearance of precisely these same two words in the draft of New Zealand's patent law was naturally deeply troubling for the local software industry, since they threatened to provide a way to circumvent the ban as they had in Europe. And so another round of lobbying began, as reported here by Guy Burgess in an informative post on the subject:
The local IT community mounted a concerted pushback on the unclear "as such" amendment. An industry petition (backed by key groups IITP, InternetNZ, NZRise and NZOSS) was set up and gained wide support. The petition called on the Government to remove the ambiguous "as such" language, and replace it with a simpler clause that clarified the underlying intention. Labour's Clare Curran adopted the petition's proposed alternative clause as an official proposed amendment to the Patents Bill, and other MPs and parties, including United Future MP Peter Dunne, also raised concerns about the lack of clarity in the Bill.
The section dealing with software in the most recent version of the Patents Bill (pdf) still includes the vexed words "as such", but it now tries to clarify what exactly they mean here:
To its credit, and thanks to the concentrated efforts of many people and not inconsiderable political pressure, the Government decided to take another look at the Bill and has now put forward a new amendment.
Helpfully, it adds two examples into the Bill - one for a software patent application which may be granted, and one which should be declined. Examples in legislation are a good way to demonstrate how a section is intended to be interpreted. The "valid" example is of a washing machine that uses embedded software.... The "invalid" example is of a software process for automating company incorporation. It includes the key comment: "The mere execution of a method within a computer does not allow the method to be patented."
Given all the problems with the phrase "as such", it would have been easier to omit it completely, rather than resort to well-meaning but necessarily limited attempts to clarify it through examples. Burgess offers an interesting explanation of why that didn't happen:
Importantly, the explanatory note has been enhanced to make the intention of the Bill very clear, including the following comments: "... where the actual contribution of an invention lies solely in it being a computer program, it is ineligible for patent protection... it will not be possible to obtain a patent for an invention that involves or makes use of the computer program if the sole inventive feature is that it is a computer program".
It appears that the concern was whether doing so would open New Zealand up for a legal challenge for allegedly not meeting its TRIPS treaty obligations. By aligning the law with wording from another jurisdiction [the EU] that hasn't been challenged, it provided some comfort that New Zealand would be safe.
Whether or not this would have happened is moot now - it was a significant enough concern to the powers that be for the above approach to be adopted.
That's certainly a fair point; let's hope it means that the latest wording won't need changing again, and that the updated bill banning software patents finally gets passed.