Last night I was at a British Computing Society Young Professionals Group event on software patents, hosted by Marks & Clerk in their rather nice office next to Covent Garden. They ran an informative session intended to give the diverse audience an understanding of what sofware patents were and which way the wind was blowing.
For those of you familiar with the software patent debate, there is a considerable amount of controversy as to whether software patents should actually be allowed. Broadly speaking, in the EU and UK certain things are excluded from patentability, which includes 'programs for computers....... as such'. No problem you might say, that seems clear, no patents for software.
The problem concerns the 'as such' wording. This has been interpreted to mean that a computer program is patentable, provided it is not 'just' a computer program. So if a computer programme combined with something else makes a non-obvious technical contribution or solves a technical problem, then it is theoretically capable of being patentable (subject the continuously changing law in this area). So software patents have been granted for voice recognition software and photograph imaging and filtering software - they solve a technical problem or they produce a technical effect. The US has no such prohibition on software patentability, but patentable inventions must still meet all the requirements for patentability.
The speakers highlighted some of the divergences in practice between the EU, UK and US on software patents - US patents for software are a lot easier to obtain. Software patents are granted in the UK and the EU, but the examination threshold require to reach patentability is considerably higher than the US.
I was particularly interested to see that there were a number of undergraduate students and their teacher (Dr Adil Hameed) from Supinfo, a french IT institution. Given the relevance of the ongoing debate and the issues it raises, it is interesting to see future software developers taking a keen interest at such an early stage in their careers.