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Google software patents startle UK nerds

British coders have awoken with a fright after a two-year sleep of reason to find the software patent threat looming.

The bells have been ringing in Blissville ever since the Guardian reported that David Willetts, the science and universities minister, was reopening the software patent question with a review of UK intellectual property laws. And that Google was behind it.

The mail list of the UK chapter of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure sprang into life on the news, and after displaying barely a hint of life for a year, and not much more than rapid eye movement for long before that.

The UK hasn't looked so perky for two and a half years, having slept even through all the jitter in the US over the Supreme Court's Bilski decision on business method patents.

Not since the dorfs blocked the European Commission's Software Patent Directive in 2005 has the UK debate on software IP shown such promise.

IP-nuff already

What's happened since only served to tuck the little tykes in to their complacent cots. After the battle was won in Brussels there were warnings that the Directive would be back in a few years, after the patent trolls had regrouped. But then the Labour government laid the devil to rest with its Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. There would be no software patents in Britain, declared Gowers. And the techies rejoiced.

Yet Willets wants another review of intellectual property already.

The only reason to do a review so soon after a review is if there is considerable desire for a different outcome. Its like playing dice: you keep throwing till you get that pair of sixes.

The new review will examine costs and complexities of the IP system, how it effects tech businesses and whether the rules of "fair use" needed revising. Gowers' review, on the other hand, had looked at the costs and complexities of the IP system, how it effected tech businesses and whether the rules of "fair use" needed revising.

So why?

Yes, so why then? Is it in the best interests of British enterprise that Willets opens Gowers' tomb? Are British firms clamouring for the introduction of software patents? Not as far as we know.

But US firms are apparently clamouring for Britain to introduce software patents.

"In the US, it's easier to obtain software patents, and Google was able to patent some work – using a federal grant, I might add – that it might not have been able to patent in the UK," Willets was reported saying by the Guardian. "The US rule is that 'anything man has invented under the sun you should be able to patent'. That's something we do wish to investigate."

Willets had been "nobbled", whispered an industry bigwig. That effectively means body-snatched.

He was speaking at the launch of the government's technology "blueprint", a PR exercise to introduce an armada of US tech multinationals about to invest in London's famously working-class East End.

Cisco, Facebook, Google, Intel and McKinsey & Co. were all piling in. The Prime Minister provided the fanfare. Willets garbled about software patents. This was all done in the name of small British technology firms for whom such a powerful combination must be like the kosh and the epidural. It conjures an image of a Petri dish in which British innovation is a jellylike culture, prep'd for US intellectual property.

You're crummy, that's why

Google had told the The Prime Minister it would never have got anywhere had it been founded in the UK, because UK IP laws were so crummy. So the review, a spokesman for the UK Intellectual Property Office said today, would look at the US system to see if it had anything to teach us. Gowers had already done that too. He was largely unimpressed.

The real reason why this is happening is that the British government's innovation strategy involves cutting public investment and replacing it with private dosh. But since there isn't much money in Britain, the yanks have been called in. Can we assume Google & Co. made an IP review a condition of their investment?

Another IP review may be a small price to pay. Although it will recommend loosening Britain's IP regime to suit Google, that might suit local techies too. Gowers had admired the US' more relaxed approach to 'fair use', a principle that stops IP holders being miserly killjoys. Willets' review will be more in that vein.

But the British tech community had better wake up if it doesn't want software patents. Last week's Blueprint for Technology was nothing but a sweetener for Google and Co.

The government's real innovation strategy is not due to be published till April, by which time the UK tech community may have mobilised well enough to have noticed the bloody great interlopers that have just moved in on their patch, if not to have made their mark on any policy reviews the government conducts to indulge the newcomers.


While you were sleeping, the European branch of the FFII has been busy with a software patent threat so far from people's minds and so arcane as to seem like a bad dream.

It's actually more like a computer game. As any gamer should know, you have to kill the big baddie three times before it's gone for good. (Life's a little more unfair though: he comes back again, and then you die).