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August 28, 2013
New Zealand Bans Software Patents (Not Really)
The recent bill passed New Zealand is getting a lot of coverage. I recommend you check out the ZDNet article, if only to watch Florian Mueller (of FOSSPatents) debating the trolls in the comments section. Pass the popcorn.
Mueller links to his own blog post on the topic, arguing that most of the coverage headlines are overblown/oversimplistic, as the NZ law is modeled on the UK's precedent and does not in fact ban software patents.
What he, and everyone else I've read, seems to be missing is that the bill doesn't actually define software. Here, read the bill yourself and see. For example right there in Part 2 is a discussion of software and "developing a clear and definitive distinction between embedded and other types of software is not a simple matter". No shit, Sherlock.
Unfortunately, with the law failing to define "computer program" the result is at best nonsensical. If the law prohibits patenting a thing where the novel or inventive part of the thing is the computer program then what are we supposed to make of any sort of machine (toaster, washing, automotive) that contains one or more programmed computers with new methods for browning bread, cleaning clothes, or detecting engine faults? I point again to adafruit's Bitcoin Mining Device and ask whether or not that would be patentable under this NZ law.
I also agree with Mueller when he comments that if patent lawyers don't want to argue this point (whether the invention lies solely in it being a computer program) they can simply draft the patent claims to specify that the program has some other effect such as toasting bread, detecting engine faults, mining Bitcoins, and that these are the invention.
Where I disagree with Mueller (and most other commenters) is that this is a bad thing. One of the biggest problems with software patents today is overbroad claiming. A patent that is issued on embedding non-text media in a text stream is claimed to cover all possible ways of embedding; a patent that discloses a server component for some process is claimed to cover all possible servers used in that process. If we could force software patents to be narrowed down to claiming a specific method for what they do, and thus allow people to invent new algorithms and techniques to achieve the same ends without infringing - that would be a worthwhile law.
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