The blueprint will give us some certainty about the future of software patents and an opportunity to set the record straight in this much-debated area.
There are already more than 20,000 software patents in Europe, many filed by US and Japanese companies. Generally, European companies have been slower to appreciate the importance of intellectual property rights. A recent Marks & Clerk survey revealed that only one third of UK technology companies have an executive at board level with responsibility for intellectual property rights.
While no firm would supply goods without systematically collecting payment, many are less diligent when it comes to intellectual property. Consequently, competitors are getting away with using their software inventions free of charge.
Intellectual property needs to be addressed at management level and throughout software development. Once patents have been obtained, their use should be reviewed on a regular basis. New opportunities for comercialising patents may arise, while some patents can lose their value to the company after a few years.
In most cases patent rights for foreign markets can be sold or licensed. E-commerce developments offer a rich vein for commercial patents. If developers come up with a new or improved way to perform a business process using software, it may be possible to get patent protection.
Although business methods in themselves remain unpatentable in the EU, the technical implementation of a business method by software may be protected in many cases.
Patents are often the only effective safeguard for developers' new ideas and the clarification of patent protection in the EU will go some way to ending the confusion in the industry.
John Collins is a partner at law firm Marks & Clerk
This was first published in September 2003