Sunday, May 23, 2010

Patent Law Catastrophe in Germany: Highest German Appeals Court Declares Software Patents which Solve a Technical Problem Legal

Germany's highest appeals court just ok'd patents for "automated document generation" by a computer. Tell us it is not true. Alas, it is true. You would have thought that the German court would have had the wisdom to at least await the Bilski decision, but no, they press on.

We have a catastrophic patent law development in Germany in an extremely unfortunate decision issued by the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice), Germany's highest appeal court for non-constitutional questions, whose judges may not not fully understand the full consequences of their decision, a decision which essentially over-rides the European Union (EU) policy that forbids software patents "as such".

The decision comes as a shock to many in the German patent field because it judicially carves out - via "judge-made law" - a patent exception to the non-patentability of software in the EU, if that software, however, solves a "technical problem". ANY software program can thus become patentable if its programmers are clever enough to add some "technical effect". That judges of Germany's highest appeals court can not foresee the catastrophic consequences that their decision will have on patents is remarkable.

What software program does not "affect" a computer or technical device? -- very few. Here, judge-made law is making a mockery of the statutes.

Hat tip to eWEEK Europe UK at German Court Declares Software Patents Legal.

See the original decision by the Bundesgerichtshof in German here (and Florian Mueller's summary of the decision at Foss Patents in English here).

As Florian Mueller writes:
"[T]he highest German appeals court in matters of civil and criminal law overruled the country's highest patent-specialized court and decided that a client-server software for the automatic generation of structured documents (such as XML or HTML) is an example of a patentable software invention. ...

[In past rulings] the Federal Court of Justice required a patented invention to put "controllable forces of nature" to use to achieve a predictable effect. Software all by itself can't do that, so that principle only allowed software to be part of a traditional technical invention.

By contrast, the new ruling of that court on the document generation program now sets the bar extremely low. It now basically says that a computer is a technical device per se and software that "takes into account" the characteristics of that computer is patentable. To give some examples, if you make sure you don't allocate infinite amounts of memory (since every computer has limits in that respect), that might be enough. Or you ensure that you don't use too much bandwidth over a network.

In other words, if you do your job as a programmer right, then you create potentially patentable stuff all the time."
Some legal observers argue, on the other hand, that the German court has merely followed a line of interpretation which is already being implemented -- wrongfully, in our view -- by the European Patent Office (EPO) in interpreting European Patent Law similarly, even though that law expressly prohibits the patentability of "software as such".

In spite of that law, the EPO has been expanding its scope of authority -- that self-serving motive leads to its policy - of permitting software patents that are are tied to a technical system and which exert "an effect" upon that technical system -- so-called "computer-implemented inventions", i.e. essentially a similar standard as applied by U.S. Supreme Court in the foolish ill-fated precedent of Diamond v. Diehr. The German court writes German court decision is described at as follows:
"Paragraph 1 Absatz 3 des Patentgesetzes schließt im Einklang mit Artikel 52 des Europäischen Patentübereinkommens (EPÜ) "Programme für Datenverarbeitungsanlagen" beziehungsweise Software "als solche" von der Patentierbarkeit aus. Der BGH hat diese Bestimmung jahrzehntelang vor allem mit der Ansage durchgesetzt, dass eine Erfindung Auswirkungen auf die physikalische Umwelt unter Einsatz "beherrschbarer Naturkräfte" haben müsse. Nur dann sei sie als technisch einzustufen und stehe damit prinzipiell einem Patentschutz offen. Ein Computerprogramm allein kann Naturkräfte aber nicht planmäßig einsetzen, sondern nur eine Software zusammen mit einem traditionellen technischen System....

Der BGH schwenkte auf den Kurs des Europäischen Patentamtes (EPA) ein. Die Technischen Beschwerdekammern des EPA legen das EPÜ seit Jahrzehnten so aus, dass sie Monopolansprüche auf "computerimplementierte Erfindungen" zulassen. So gehen sie etwa bei der "Verbesserung des Kontrastes" eines Bilds oder bei der effizienteren Aufteilung von Arbeitsspeicher durch eine auf einem Computer laufende Software von einem "technischen Effekt" aus, der schutzwürdig sein könne. In einer entsprechenden Entscheidung ist zu lesen, dass jeder auf einem Computer ablaufende Prozess und jeglicher materielle Prozess bis hin zum Niederschreiben von Gedanken mit Bleistift auf Papier technisch sei. Die Große Beschwerdekammer des EPA bestätigte vergangene Woche diese Linie."
It is a dark day for the smooth progress of the digital age -- but a great day for exploitative, monopolistic companies and patent trolls, as the German decision opens wide the doors of patentability for anyone who writes or owns software that in any way "affects" a computer or any other technical device -- i.e. a "computer-implemented invention". The German court decision will greatly exacerbate an already existing problem in the patent field by flooding the market with patents that no software programmer can reasonably avoid, even if he tries to do so. That these patents are limited in time is irrelevant, since patent extensions via "new" inventions are the name of the game. It is an endless pea and shell game in which the winners and losers are "pre-programmed", so to speak, for many years to come. Monopolies, once granted, have a VERY LONG LIFE -- centuries -- as a study of monopolies proves.

This is what happens when well-meaning judges apparently do not understand the deplorable effects that pervasive monopoly-producing patent laws have on the world.

The German court decision is a catastrophe for everyone because it will only fuel the monopolistic patent fires that are already plaguing the entire business and software programming world.

As Lawrence Lessig in the year 2002 quoted Microsoft founder Bill Gates on the patent problem clear back in the year 1991 (cited from FFII):
"Bill Gates 1991: Patents exclude competitors, lead industry to standstill
Lessig 2002-07-24: Keynote to OSCON

This was quoted by Fred Warshofsky in "The Patent Wars" of 1994. The text is from an internal memo written by Bill Gates to his staff...:

"If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. ... The solution is patenting as much as we can. A future startup with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose. That price might be high. Established companies have an interest in excluding future competitors."
And they will be excluded, you can be sure.

With court decisions like the German court decision, the monopolistic powers in society are strengthened and supported, to the detriment of the common good.

If one purpose of the law is to IMPROVE life on this planet, this decision does exactly the opposite.

If the soon-to-be issued decision in Bilski in the U.S.A. were to come to a similarly devastating conclusion, the conditions for patent wars of unforeseen extent have been created.

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