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Software Patents in Europe

Chairman's Opening Remarks

Speaker: Paul Hartnack, Comptroller General, The Patent Office

This conference is a joint initiative of the Commission and UK Presidency and I am glad that it is attracted representatives from industry from across the whole of the Community. I would like to extend a warm welcome to our distinguished speakers, and to all the delegates. I hope we all have an enjoyable and constructive day.

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The portfolio of rights covered by the term intellectual property - patents, trade marks, registered designs and copyright - have assumed increasing significance in recent years. Harmonisation of these rights in Europe and across the world has been an important element in the drive to secure open and competitive markets.

This conference has been called to consider whether a legal right - that of a patent - should be given to all inventive computer software in addition to the copyright protection which it already enjoys.

Intellectual property is a difficult and somewhat arcane area of the law and I am glad that the conference provides an opportunity for the issues, and the pros and cons of any change, to be given an airing.

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Powerful arguments have been advanced in favour of a change in the law which would allow software to be patented. Most of you will be familiar with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights - commonly known as TRIPS - which was signed in the Uruguay round of the GATT negotiations.

Some have argued that the TRIPS agreement requires us to grant patents for software because it says "patents shall be available for any inventions.....in all field of technology, provided they are.....capable of industrial application". However, it depends on how you interpret these words.

Is a piece of pure software an invention? European law says it isn’t. Is pure software technology? Many would say no. Is it capable of "industrial" application? Again, for much software many would say no.

TRIPS is an argument for wider protection for software. But the decision to do so should be based on sound economic reasons. Would it be in the interests of European industry, and European consumers, to take this step?

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I hope we can approach today’s conference on this basis.

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Last updated 06 December 2000 top