[ffii] French former PM condemns software patents

Hartmut Pilch phm at a2e.de
Tue Jul 1 05:31:53 CEST 2003


Michel Rocard MEP, former prime minister of France, today condemned
software patents in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation.

(http://www.liberation.fr/page.php?Article=121303)

"After careful reading and reflection, I have aligned myself with the
supporters of free software.  Software patents should be permitted only
if something uses the forces of nature or acts on matter... [Otherwise]
the patentability of software is likely to create a terrifying financial
and legal threat, weighing down on software creators. It would slow down
the growth of human knowledge and of economic activity. One will no
longer be able to create a piece of software in one's own corner without
being threatened to pay exorbitant royalties... The possibility that
human understanding may be made patentable is a thing to be feared.  A
civilization should be preserved where the place of the world outside
the market, and of the human intellect, is respected.  That is a
conviction I have as a social democrat."

Rocard is one of the most senior and influential figures in the EU
parliament's Social Democrat group, the PSE, and wrote the official
opinion on software patents of the parliament's Culture committee.  But
Rocard's position is diametrically opposed to that of another member of
the PSE, the UK Labour party's Arlene McCarthy.  At group meetings in
Strasbourg this week the fraction's MEPs will be making up their minds
which of the two to follow.


Below is a translation of the full interview:
(also at http://www.aful.org/wws/arc/patents/2003-06/msg00221.html)

Michel Rocard opposes the patentability of software

"Everyone copies, and this is a good thing"
By Florent LATRIVE and Laurent MAURIAC

Liberation, Monday June 30, 2003



"A civilization should be preserved, where the place of the world
outside the market, and of the human intellect, is respected."

One does not find a computer on the Parisian desk of Michel Rocard.  He
admits it freely: he is not "one of the generation which has an easy
facility with the computer". However, as president of the Committee for
Culture in the European Parliament, he has had to plunge himself, with
an "evil madness", into software patentability, "words which even a year
ago were unknown to me".  Today, if he speaks about it in such an
animated way, it is because hiding behind the technical aspects there is
a real issue about civilization.  For the ex prime minister, the
introduction of patents on software in Europe would be "very serious".
It would call into question the freedom of movement of human knowledge.
Until now, software has been officially excluded from patentable
subject-matter in Europe, just like mathematical equations or cooking
recipes. But for several months, a very polemical draft Directive has
been before the institutions of the European Union which aims to modify
this regime. It will be put to the vote in the European Parliament at
the beginning of September.

Q.: Why is it your judgment that Europe should not authorize patents on
software?

Since the cave of Lascaux, it is not clear that humanity has progressed
in its aesthetic capacities. As for its ethical capacities and morals,
one is even more doubtful. On the other hand, in the field of technical
knowledge and the control of nature, the progress is astounding.  The
dizzying growth of knowledge is the key to this history. Knowledge was
spread by copying, everyone recopied everyone, and that was good. With
the patentability of software, one is re-writing the statutes on human
knowledge. All of the intellectual exchange in the creations of the
human spirit, the means of bringing knowledge together, will be achieved
more and more by software. If patentability is introduced, i.e. a cost,
a prohibition, one sets up a new rule. It is worrying.

Q.: It does not however appear abnormal to remunerate creators and
inventors...

Two things should be distinguished: works, protected by the rights of
the author, and inventions, protected by the patent. In the 19th
century, one was initially concerned with the former. It was regarded as
normal to remunerate the creators and to guarantee the safeguarding of
the integrity of their works.  So the droit d'auteur [ie copyright +
moral rights] was created. Later, the patent was established, that is to
say, a prohibition on anybody using an invention without paying a
royalty. During the 20th century, we had no problem in differentiating
the two.  In contrast to works [oeuvres], protected by the rights of the
author, invention is defined by the bringing  into play of matter or the
forces of nature.  The conviction that human knowledge must circulate
implied that there should be no patents on the products of this
knowledge. A mathematical equation is not patented. In 1972, the
European patent convention contained a simple sentence in good taste:
"software is not patentable."

Q.: What do you recommend for software?

I am not against all patentability of software but there is a border to
respect. The campaigners for free software, with whom I aligned myself
after careful reading and reflection, consider that one is dealing with
an invention (which one can thus patent) if something uses the forces of
nature or acts on matter. The ABS brake on cars, for example, is
controlled by software, but it is founded on the use of the forces of
nature and it acts on matter. On the other hand, any software which
describes or facilitates the circulation of the products of the mind
[les produits de l'esprit] (nb text processing, for example) should not
be patentable. However, the European Patent Office has gone beyond the
initial conception and granted about thirty thousand patents concerning
software, which poses a problem.  There is an urgent need to get away
from the current legal uncertainty.  On their side, the United States
have developed a considerable field of patentability of the software. It
extends for example to teaching methods or surgical methods (applied on
software and computers, note). These are codifications of human
know-how, nothing more, and there is no reason to patent them.

Q.: Which would be the consequences of a European directive opening the
way to a multitude of software patents?

There is a difference between software invention and any other body of
invention. In this sector, design is essentially sequential: one builds
on thirty pieces of software to invent a thirty-first.  The
patentability of software is likely to create a terrifying financial and
legal threat, weighing down on software creators. It would slow down the
growth of human knowledge and of economic activity. One will no longer
be able to create a piece of software in one's own corner without being
threatened to pay exorbitant royalties. Thousands of SMEs, often friends
working together, work on ideas in this way.

Q.: You are in the same political group in the Parliament as the
rapporteur of the directive, Arlene McCarthy, of the English Labour
party. And you don't agree...

We are not prioritising the same dangers.  The possibility that human
understanding may be made patentable is a thing to be feared.  A
civilization should be preserved where the place of the world outside
the market and of the human intellect is respected.  That is a
conviction I have as a social democrat.

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