An Overview of Software Patenting

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The concept of “intellectual property” in India over the last few years has taken on some epic proportions for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons, attributable to the growing awareness among the urban Indian population, is of the significance and, more importantly, the commercial benefits in protecting its intellectual property rights both within and outside India. And under traditional principles of intellectual property protection, patent law is to encourage scientific research, new technology and industrial progress. The fundamental principle of patent law is that the patent is granted only for an invention i.e. new and useful the said invention must have novelty and utility. The grant of patent thus becomes of industrial property and also called an intellectual property. And the computer software is a relatively new recipient of patent protection.

The term “Patent” has its origin from the term “Letter Patent”. This expression ‘Letter Patent’ meant open letter and were instruments under the Great Seal of King of England addressed by the Crown to all the subjects at large in which the Crown conferred certain rights and privileges on one or more individuals in the kingdom. It was in the later part of the 19th century new inventions in the field of art, process, method or manner of manufacture, machinery and other substances produced by manufacturers were on increased and the inventors became very much interested that the inventions done by them should not be infringed by any one else by copying them or by adopting the methods used by them. To save the interests of inventors, the then British rulers enacted the Indian Patents and Design Act, 1911.

With respect to patentability of software -related inventions, it is currently one of the most heated areas of debate. Software has become patentable in recent years in most jurisdictions (although with restrictions in certain countries, notably those signatories of the European Patent Convention or EPC) and the number of software patents has risen rapidly.

MEANING OF SOFTWARE PATENTING

The term “software” does not have a precise definition and even the software industries fails to give an specific definition. But it is basically used to describe all of the different types of computer programs. Computer programs are basically divided into “application programs” and “operating system programs”. Application programs are designed to do specific tasks to be executed through the computer and the operating system programs are used to manage the internal functions of the computer to facilitate use of application program.

Though the term ‘Software patent’ does not have a universally accepted definition. One definition suggested by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure is that a software patent is a “patent on any performance of a computer realized by means of a computer program”.

According to Richard Stallman, the co-developer of the GNU-Linux operating system and proponent of Free Software says, “Software patents are patents which cover software ideas, ideas which you would use in developing software.

That is Software patents refer to patents that could be granted on products or processes (including methods) which include or may include software as a significant or at least necessary part of their implementation, i.e. the form in which they are put in practice (or used) to produce the effect they intend to provide.

Early example of a software patent:

On 21st Sep 1962, a British patent application entitled “A Computer Arranged for the Automatic Solution of Linear Programming Problems” was filed. The invention was concerned with efficient memory management for the simplex algorithm, and may be implemented by purely software means. The patent was granted on August 17, 1966 and seems to be one of the first software patents.

CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COPYRIGHT AND PATENT

Software has traditionally been protected under copyright law since code fits quite easily into the description of a literary work. Thus, Software is protected as works of literature under the Berne Convention, and any software written is automatically covered by copyright. This allows the creator to prevent another entity from copying the program and there is generally no need to register code in order for it to be copyrighted. While Software Patenting has recently emerged (if only in the US, Japan and Europe) where, Patents give their owners the right to prevent others from using a claimed invention, even if it was independently developed and there was no copying involved.

Further, it should be noted that patents cover the underlying methodologies embodied in a given piece of software. On the other copyright prevents the direct copying of software, but do not prevent other authors from writing their own embodiments of the underlying methodologies.
The issues involved in conferring patent rights to software are, however, a lot more complex than taking out copyrights on them. Specifically, there are two challenges that one encounters when dealing with software patents. The first is about the instrument of patent itself and whether the manner of protection it confers is suited to the software industry. The second is the nature of software, and whether it should be subject to patenting.

However, issues involved in conferring patent rights to software are a lot more complex than taking out copyrights on them. Specifically, there are two challenges that one encounters when dealing with software patents. The first is about the instrument of patent itself and whether the manner of protection it confers is suited to the software industry. The second is the nature of software and whether it should be subject to patenting.

a) Different Subject Matters

Copyright protection extends to all original literary works (among them, computer programs), dramatic, musical and artistic works, including films. Under copyright, protection is given only to the particular expression of an idea that was adopted and not the idea itself. (For instance, a program to add numbers written in two different computer languages would count as two different expressions of one idea) Effectively, independent rendering of a copyrighted work by a third party would not infringe the copyright.

Generally patents are conferred on any ‘new’ and ‘useful’ art, process, method or manner of manufacture, machines, appliances or other articles or substances produced by manufacture. Worldwide, the attitude towards patentability of software has been skeptical.

b) Who may claim the right to a patent /copyright?

Generally, the author of a literary, artistic, musical or dramatic work automatically becomes the owner of its copyright.

The patent, on the other hand is granted to the first to apply for it, regardless of who the first to invent it was. Patents cost a lot of money. They cost even more paying the lawyers to write the application than they cost to actually apply. It takes typically some years for the application to get considered, even though patent offices do an extremely sloppy job of considering.

c) Rights conferred

Copyright law gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the material, issue copies, perform, adapt and translate the work. However, these rights are tempered by the rights of fair use which are available to the public. Under “fair use”, certain uses of copyright material would not be infringing, such as use for academic purposes, news reporting etc. Further, independent recreation of a copyrighted work would not constitute infringement. Thus if the same piece of code were independently developed by two different companies, neither would have a claim against the other

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