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Court ruling strengthens UK patents on software

Software created in the UK will have stronger patent protection following a high court ruling. The decision could be used as a precedent and offers programmers a step up in protecting their inventions.

It follows an appeal case brought by software licensing company, Symbian, after a patent application was rejected by the UK Intellectual Property Office (UK-IPO) in July 2007. The appeal judge upheld Symbian's claim last week that the UK-IPO was wrong to reject the application just because it was computer software.

"There have been a number of UK High Court decisions recently which ruled that software inventions were not patentable because they were programs for computers," said Nick Wallin, patent attorney at Withers & Rogers, who acted for Symbian. "This does not make sense. This ruling goes some way to help improve this situation."

The UK Patents Act 1977 excludes patents for innovations that are solely computer-based programs, such as an improved word processing program. Wallin said patenting software to make, for example, a kitchen toaster work better was allowed, but not software that improved how a computer worked.

Although the UK-IPO will appeal, the latest Symbian judgment is binding until it is overtaken by another judgment from the Court of Appeal.

Wallin said internet sites using the latest social networking software, such as Facebook and Bebo, would have been unlikely to have been eligible for patent protection in the UK before last week's ruling, and it is still not straightforward.

"The time is right for a full-scale review of UK patent law in this area and we hope that today's ruling marks the start of that process," he said.

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