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Torvalds denounces EU patent law

Three prominent open-source software developers have urged the EU to reject a law that would codify the practice of granting software patents in Europe. 

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, Michael Widenius, a creator of the MySQL database, and Rasmus Lerdorf, the author of the PHP scripting language, argued that the legislation, called the software patent directive, would be harmful to the European economy, and that copyright law was better than patent law for protecting software innovations.

Torvalds said the patent directive was ill-advised because it unnecessarily broadened the area that could be governed by patents. "It's not even just about software patents. Patents on ideas are wrong, whether in software or in business. You should patent some concrete machinery, not a way of doing things."

According to Torvalds, open-source software was no more likely than proprietary software to infringe on software patents. But he warned that patent licences could be incompatible with open-source software licences and software patents themselves put a special burden on open-source developers, who were often independent contributors without the financial resources to fight off spurious patent claims. "Clearly the open-source way of life is much less amenable to software patents than proprietary software is."

With its software patent directive, the EU is attempting to establish an overarching standard for IT-implemented inventions and bring into line the myriad interpretations given to patent law by different European national courts.

The European Commission submitted the directive to the European Parliament in February 2002. The parliament amended the directive to bar the patenting of software, but in May the Council of Ministers narrowly passed its own version of the directive, re-introducing software patenting.

The Council of Ministers is expected to give final approval to its version of the directive before it goes back to the European Parliament for further consideration.

But last week the Polish government withdrew its support for the legislation in a move that could make it impossible for the Council to muster the votes required to approve the directive, according to Florian Mueller, an independent software developer and campaign manager for Nosoftwarepatents.com.

Nosoftwarepatents.com hopes to pressure European politicians to reconsider their support for software patents. "We have clear indications that there are discussions going on between the member countries after Poland announced its decision last week," he said.

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service. Laura Rohde and Przemyslaw Gamdzyk also contributed to this story.


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