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3/28/2006
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New European Anti-Patents Crusade On Tap

Florian Mueller, a German software developer and anti-patents activist, says the recent BlackBerry patent battle is helping reunite Europeans who oppose software patents.

Florian Mueller, the German software developer who assumed a leadership position in the vanguard of the anti-software patents campaign in Europe last year, is gearing up to spearhead another drive. This time Mueller is likely to get more support from countries scattered throughout the 25-nation EU.

Mueller, who discusses the earlier campaign in a book published in English and German Tuesday, said in an interview that the recent e-mail patents battle involving Research in Motion's (RIM) losing struggle with a patent trolling company in the U.S. spilled over in Europe and is helping anti software patents advocates marshal their forces. The case has helped prompt widespread calls for patent reform in the U.S.

"The RIM case has opened the eyes of many people over here as well," he said. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mail-related patents have also been granted by different patent offices in Europe, and the only thing that prevents the holders of those patents from successfully enforcing them is that the national courts in major countries such as the U.K. and Germany are very reluctant to uphold those types of software patents."

Mueller's book, "No Lobbyists As Such -- The War Over Software Patents In The European Union," describes how a ragtag group of programmers and developers fueled a campaign that eventually enlisted large companies and some major politicians in the campaign. Mueller maintains that copyright and trade secret protection are adequate safeguards for software IP protection.

In Mueller's eyes, the software patents bogeyman is Microsoft, which has been generating patents at the annual rate of more that 3,000. But Mueller also criticized large companies like IBM, too, which he says holds its software patents portfolio over small and medium-sized companies.

"No innovation that doesn't constitute a progress in a field of an applied natural science should result in the grant of 20-year monopolies," Mueller said. "From a static perspective, patents are more powerful: You can sit on them for 20 years and sue others for infringement. But the market is dynamic."

Mueller said a new anti-software patents campaign is currently being driven by a deadline Friday for companies to submit answers to the EU on the future of the European patent system; the deadline is focusing the issue once again. Coupled with the RIM case -- RIM's Blackberries are also popular in Europe -- was a recent magazine interview in which Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer hinted that the company could institute patent litigation against open source firms, said Mueller.

Mueller, whose nosoftwarepatents.com campaign drew on grassroots support among programmers and developers initially, gradually was buttressed by small and medium-size businesses. Eventually open source database firm MySQL, German ISP firm 1&1, and Red Hat supported the effort. Later, major politicians from Poland and Spain sided with the anti-software patents advocates. Said Mueller: "Last year, the German parliament passed a unanimous resolution against software patents."

On the other side of the issue are patent attorneys whose livelihood is largely dependent on patent litigation, generally favor patents. And, of course, filers of patents maintain that they have created innovative intellectual property and their inventions should be protected.

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