03.31.10

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Patents Roundup: Several Defeats for Bad Types of Patents, Apple Risks Embargo, and Microsoft Lobbies Europe Intensely

Posted in Apple, Australia, Courtroom, Free/Libre Software, Microsoft, OIN, Patents, Standard at 8:56 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

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Summary: News from around the world about government-approved monopolies on general banking methods, human genes, computers, and even mathematics (encoded in the form of algorithms)

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So, what has happened all this time? The big story is about SCO (more on that later), but equally important there’s this old patent issue that Novell made worse when it signed the 2006 deal with Microsoft. The following post only looks at patents.

In Re Bilski (Business Method Patents)

Let’s begin with the impending ruling on Bilski — an important decision that has been escalated to the Supreme Court. From the EE Times we have:

The Supreme Court could issue a decision any day on a controversial case limiting business method and software patents. Legal experts expect the court will uphold the Bilski decision but may call for the Federal Circuit court broaden a test of what can be patentable it set in that case.

In 2008, the Federal Circuit Court upheld a decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejecting a 1997 patent application filed by Bernard Bilski on a business method for hedging financial trades. In its decision, the Federal court laid down a controversial test for any patent: it has to be tied to a device or transform something physical.

Gene Patents

How about patents on life? The encouraging news is that scope of patents seems to be narrowed rather than broadened now that gene patents may die, leading to the suspicion that invalidation of software patents in the United States is reachable (Bilski already shatters business method patents and sometimes software patents too).

There’s been an important development in the world of US patents:

Patents on genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are invalid, ruled a New York federal court today. The precedent-setting ruling marks the first time a court has found patents on genes unlawful and calls into question the validity of patents now held on approximately 2,000 human genes.

That’s notable because it asserts definitively (well, subject to appeals) that genes are not patentable matter – overturning decades of practice. Here’s what the judge said on the issue:

Judge Sweet, however, ruled that the patents were “improperly granted” because they involved a “law of nature.” He said that many critics of gene patents considered the idea that isolating a gene made it patentable “a ‘lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibition on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result.”

Note that it singles out “a ‘lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibition on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result”. That’s interesting, because it is essentially the same technique that is used in the world of software patents.

Here is what ACLU had to say on the case:

Patents on genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are invalid, ruled a New York federal court today. The precedent-setting ruling marks the first time a court has found patents on genes unlawful and calls into question the validity of patents now held on approximately 2,000 human genes. The ruling follows a lawsuit brought by a group of patients and scientists represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a not-for-profit organization affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Apple & Embargo

From Bloomberg we now learn that Apple gets hit with an embargo attempt similar to the one it tried to pull against Android/Linux when suing HTC [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. Irony at its best.

Elan Microelectronics Corp., a Taiwanese maker of chips and touch-screens, asked a U.S. trade agency to ban the import and sale of some Apple Inc. products, including the forthcoming iPad, because of alleged patent infringement.

Elan’s complaint filed yesterday with the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington claims Apple “knowingly and deliberately” used Elan’s technology, while continuing to introduce infringing products, the company claims in the complaint. The petition also seeks to ban imports of the iPhone and iPod Touch products, Elan said in the complaint.

“Our goal is to protect our technology and to stop sales of those products in the U.S.,” Dennis Liu, spokesman for Hsinchu, Taiwan-based Elan, said by phone today.

Microsoft & EIF

Earlier on we wrote about allegations (from a reliable source) that Microsoft had a “coup in process” at the European Commission [1, 2]. The head of the FSFE has responded to that as follows:

The European Commission started updating the EIF in 2006, and called for public comments in the summer of 2008. Then, the document was still very strong on Open Standards, and gave clear directions to the European member states that wanted their public sector IT to be more efficient and vendor-independent.

Until the Business Software Alliance (BSA) got its hands on it.

The Business Software Alliance is a lobby group of proprietary software vendors, backed above all by Microsoft. FSFE has prepared an overview page showing how the BSA’s demands are reflected in the latest draft of EIFv2.

[...]

In its current state, EIFv2 would do only one thing: Cement the vendor lock-in and network effects that are keeping too many public bodies from migrating to Free Software and Open Standards. FSFE is not the only group with serious concerns about the text. Open Forum Europe has written a strongly worded letter (.pdf) to Member States and the European Commission, calling for the document to be rejected.

There is also this article in German about the subject. Even the Document Freedom Web site could not help remarking on that.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Open Standards are a rather dull topic. Specifications are probably the most boring kind of reading known to man.Who will be able to read what you wrote? Who can you share documents with? Will you be able to read your own writings in the future, or will it all be locked into proprietary file formats developed by companies that have long since disappeared, leaving you sitting on a pile of digital toxic waste?

[...]

As far as we know, this sort of thing doesn’t sit well with everyone in the European Commission. DG INFSO appears to be under huge pressure from other DGs to remove the reference to Open Standards from the text, and make it less ambitious overall.

FSFE is active on both issues, talking to policy makers and calling public attention to the problem. What’s at stake here is the fate of Open Standards in Europe’s public sector in the coming years.

Open Invention Network (OIN) Grows

The patent pool that’s designed to protect Linux by hoarding patents just keeps growing with the addition of Guest-tek.

Open Invention Network (OIN), the company formed to enable and protect Linux, today extended the Linux ecosystem with the signing of Guest-tek™ as a licensee. By becoming a licensee, Guest-tek™ has joined the growing list of companies that recognize the importance of participating in a substantial community of Linux supporters and leveraging the Open Invention Network to further spur open source innovation.

Software Patents Suffer a Blow in New Zealand

A few months back we wrote about the terrifying possibility that New Zealand may authorise the patenting of software [1, 2, 3] (like Australia, for example). If the press from New Zealand (IDG in this case) is reporting accurately, then local supporters of Free software have been rather successful at defending their country’s software industry.

Open source software champions have been influential in excluding software from the scope of patents in the new Patents Bill.

Clause 15 of the draft Bill, as reported back from the Commerce Select Committee, lists a number of classes of invention which should not be patentable and includes the sub-clause “a computer program is not a patentable invention.”

“We received many submissions concerning the patentability of computer programs,” says the committee in the preamble to the Bill. “Under the Patents Act 1953, computer programs can be patented n New Zealand, provided they produce a commercially useful effect.

More here:

So, there you are. New Zealand MPs of all parties are to be congratulated on recognising, what to many, for many years, has been patently obvious. There are some members of that committee that paid particular attention to the detail of the debate, there were also lots of submissions made be patent lawyers in favour of patents.

The issue is also being discussed in Slashdot. The assessment from the FFII’s president, who looked at the “Patents Bill” draft, says concisely that New Zealand is “trying to exclude software patents, not an easy task, confused by the embedded software trick” (as posted in Twitter).

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