March 2, 2006 6:44 AM PST

U.K. to probe 'patent thickets'

The leader of a wide-ranging review of the U.K.'s intellectual property legislation has vowed to address the issue of companies abusing the patent system.

Speaking at a seminar in London on Thursday, Andrew Gowers acknowledged concerns that the present system may hamper competition.

"There is an accusation of a rise of companies sitting defensively on patents," Gowers said. "There are patent thickets, which are a complex web of patents which may stunt invention and discourage research and development."

Gowers, a former editor of the Financial Times, was chosen by the government late last year to lead an independent review into intellectual-property rights in the U.K.

Last year, the European Commission came close to approving a directive that would have made pure software applications patentable across Europe. Although the directive was eventually abandoned, campaigners fear that similar legislation could be introduced in the future.

Microsoft executives also attended Thursday's seminar and indicated that the company would support changes to the existing laws related to intellectual property.

"Reform is needed, especially in the U.S., to curb the excessive litigation costs," said Chris Parker, senior director of law and corporate affairs at Microsoft.

Last year, Microsoft estimated that it spends around $100 million a year on patent lawsuits. This makes only a small dent in its multibillion-dollar revenue but illustrates how hard it could be for companies with less revenue to defend themselves.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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2 comments

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about time
someone sees the real problems patents generate
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
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There is a simple solution
Most of the existing patent law prevent people from patenting common use words or commonly used programming techniques, this should remain in place as it stops a fair amount of abuse.

The one thing that needs to be added though is something to stop companies like Microsoft from patenting ideas without having any clue as to how they would produce an actual product from that idea.

For instance Microsoft have patented the use of the human body as a means to send data or power from one location to another. They have no idea what this could be used for, nor do they have a single product that uses this idea.

If on the other hand, they were forced to produce a working prototype of their idea, this would 1/stop their practice of sitting on patents and stifling innovation,
2/stop their practice of creating vague patents for the purpose of entrapment. That is, preventing them from suing small businesses that invent tangible products, then stealing the designs for those products when those businesses fold due to litigation.

It's either that or scrap patents altogether and simply rely on copyright law to protect intellectual property.

IMHO if you don't know how to evolve an idea into a tangible product, you haven't invented anything, you've just seen something on Startrek and hope to make money from it when someone actually has the knowledge to make a real product.

This has actually happened. People have stolen ideas from SciFi writers and patented them without having a clue as to whether those ideas where in any way feasible or if they were, how to produce something from them.
Posted by ajbright (447 comments )
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