Preface: This is an open letter from Mikko Rauhala of the Department of Computer Science of the University of Helsinki to Under-Secretary Wlodzimierz Marcinski of Poland. Reproduction and publication are permitted and encouraged as long as the text is unmodified. The author would be glad to be notified of such publications via E-mail to email@example.com, but this is not required.
Dear Undersecretary Wlodzimierz Marcinski,
I was positively elated to hear about you standing up to the pressures of certain other parties in the EU Council of Ministers and getting the Software Patent Directive in its current form off of the Agenda of the Council of Agriculture and Fisheries. The citizens of EU owe you a debt of gratitude for this upstanding act of defending democracy, innovation and competition within the Union.
I am sure you are more informed than myself about the backhanded dealings within the Council to completely disregard the Parliament's view on software idea patents in their so-called compromise text. You can also probably well imagine the dealings that have led to some parties' insistence on wider patentability. Nevertheless, in the hope that it might prove somehow useful, I would like to offer my admittedly limited insight on how things seem to have progressed here in Finland, if even just to affirm what you might already reasonably suspect.
In the autumn of 2003 there was a hearing on the Parliament's version of the directive text here in Helsinki. Among others, the Department of Computer Science of the University of Helsinki was invited. I had already been working there for a couple of years, and the department head appointed me as our official representative at the hearing. Also, as it happens, Electronic Frontier Finland¹, which concentrates on defending civil and consumer rights in the digital age, did not receive a timely invitation to the hearing. Luckily, I happened to be on the board of EFFI at the time, and was recognized as representing them also.
With the notable exception of Finland's Parliament member Jyrki Kasvi, who had come to the hearing uninvited, there were no other opponents of software idea patents present, and neither were there any other representatives of the scientific community. In fact, mostly the participants seemed to be composed of three interest groups: big business (as represented by Nokia), lawyers and the National Board of Patents and Registration of Finland. In other words, these were people who were standing to gain personally from wide patentability of software ideas: Nokia could better strong-arm smaller competitors into submission, patent lawyers would become indispensable for everyone wishing to write and market software, and the patent office wouldn't have to worry about losing work or funding any time soon.
Even though software idea patent proponents tend to talk about such high ideals as promoting the progress of science and useful arts, it comes as no big surprise that the actual opinion of the part of the scientific community I was representing didn't carry much weight in the proceedings, and that the civil rights issues² were likewise dismissed altogether. It was also widely argued that the EU Parliament's directive text was too unclear on what was patentable. Curiously, the correct remedy seemed always to be to clearly allow wide patentability of software ideas. On the whole, I would summarize the hearing as the aforementioned parties asking for our government to please make others give them more money (albeit not in such a straightforward manner). The government apparently thought this to be a reasonable suggestion.
Thus it came to pass that Finland supported walking over the EU Parliament and sacrificing the interests of both private individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises in favor of lawyers and aspiring monopolists. Sadly, not many have had the courage to oppose this practice of perverting supposedly democratic processes into something better described as plutocracy.
I know that this particular fight is not over yet, and that there are many other issues where the interests of the rich and the powerful are likely to take precedence also in the minds of many a politician. However, Poland's example gives me some hope in a democratic Europe once more. Hopefully it will also inspire others, especially the EU newcomers, to take a similar stand as equal members of the Union and not be intimidated into compliance by entrenched political powers.
² I do consider it a civil rights issue when the rights of individuals to write original software and earn a living off of their work is threatened by monopolizing programming practices. Strangely enough, some do not.
EFFI press releases (in Finnish):
- EFFI: Ohjelmistopatentit eivät kuulu maatalousministereille,
- EFFI: Ohjelmistopatenttiäänestys lykkäytyi Puolan pyynnöstä,