Software Patent Law
A patent can be defined as “a legal document granted by the government giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, and sell an invention for a specified number of years.” 1 These special rights are given to the inventor as a means of incentive to further advance technology. The origins of patents are unknown, though the distinction of the longest continuous patent system belongs to Great Britain. The British patent system originated in the 15th century, when the Crown first started dealing with the granting of privileges to manufacturers and traders. The earliest known British patent was issued in 1449 for a method of making stained glass.2
Since those medieval beginnings, patent law has grown and evolved due to many factors, one of the most important being the accommodation (whether it be inclusion or exclusion policies) of new technologies. Though many of these policies have been easily agreed upon, accommodating all new advances has not been without conflict. One of the most controversial patent issues was born with the introduction of computers. With computers came the desire to own intellectual property for computer software inventions. The debated value of this relatively new form of invention has given rise to controversies both domestically and abroad.
The main ethical issue that has arisen is whether or not patents should be granted for software or ways of doing business. Should the inventors be rewarded for their product or should software be free for all to use? Which would better promote advancement of technology?
Another point of interest with software patents has to do with globalization. Since the software patent issue is not exclusive to the U.S. alone, should there be a forced international standard? Should individual country patent offices be maintained or would one global governing agency suffice? How do U.S. and European policies affect the global perspective on patenting software?
In the sections that follow, the policies of the U.S. and Europe will be analyzed to see how these ethical questions may be answered.
Background Information: Governing Bodies
Up until recent times, the organization of the global patent system has simply been that each country has their own patent laws and offices. These offices deal with their own domestic patent filings, as well as those of foreigners seeking protection against infringement in that particular country. Manufacturers have come to embrace the idea of distributing their goods to the world market; so as globalization grows, so does the need for international patents.
In 1973, thirteen European countries signed the European Patent Convention (EPC), with the objective of developing a uniform patent system (the European Patent Organisation) in order to make patent protection in Europe easier and less costly. Four years later, the European Patent Office (EPO) was founded as the executive branch of the Organisation....