Back in early 2004, software patents weren't exactly cocktail party conversation material in IT circles - the whole issue seemed remote, one of those things that happens off in Brussels or, perhaps, Luxembourg, wherever that might be. By mid-2005 you only had to look at the PR efforts being set up by the likes of Sun Microsystems and IBM to make software patents seem more friendly to see how much the situation had changed.
The shift was down to a series of key events surrounding a remarkable fracas at the highest levels of the EU government, which pitted elected MEPs against the sinister bureaucrats of the European Commission and the European Council. The two sides were warring over a proposed directive that would have liberalised the EU's patent system, which critics said would have made software patents enforceable across Europe.
European developers would have had to deal with the likes of Amazon.com's infamous patent on "one-click" shopping, not to mention the likes of Eolas and NTP, patent "trolls" which have successfully brought the likes of Microsoft and RIM to their knees. That the directive failed was down largely to the efforts of grassroots lobbyists, who managed to convince MEPs to ultimately throw the directive out.
One of the main lobbyists was Florian Mueller, who, by his own admission, has nothing against intellectual property rights as such - as a software developer, he's lived off them since he was 17. In the spring of 1994, as a consultant for MySQL, he was roped in to bring a business perspective to the campaign against the software patents directive.
His knack for public relations helped bring the software-patents issue to a much wider audience. In the UK, national newspapers like the Guardian ran for-and-against columns from MEP Arlene McCarthy and Richard M. Stallman, creator of the concept of Free Software. Elsewhere in Europe, mainstream magazines like Der Spiegel gave the issue significant coverage. When Munich suspended its plans to shift thousands of desktops to Linux because of software patent fears, and Linus Torvalds openly condemned the directive, even the US press even got interested.
Mueller has now written a book recounting his part in the events. It's largely a chronological narrative of how the whole mess unfolded, with digressions relating the history involved, for example the way that Microsoft went from condemning software patents to being one of their biggest advocates. Mueller explains all the intricacies of voting rights and the powers of the various branches of EU government. If this sounds arcane, the complexity of it is probably one reason why most people never get directly involved in lobbying. The fact that Mueller and other activists bothered to work it all out was one of the reasons they were able to be effective - to the irritation of big businesses and high-ranking Commission officials.
Besides the business and political history involved, what comes across is a story of how a handful of people with little experience in politics managed to make a decisive difference to a usually remote and unresponsive political process. In theory, of course, the European Parliament, a democratic institution, is supposed to be expressing the will of the electorate. When it actually did so, it was greeted with shock and disbelief by the lobbying forces of big business and by the European Commission, illustrating how rarely such a thing must occur.
Why does it matter? To anyone convinced that software patents in Europe wouldn't be a good idea - and even Microsoft must be finding software patents irritating at the moment - it is an eye-opening examination of how precarious the situation is. The companies favouring a more liberal EU patent system have admitted that they were caught off guard the first time around, and were slow off the block with their own lobbying efforts. In the past, similar forces have managed to push through hard-core laws such as the EU Copyright Directive (EUCD) with barely a murmur of protest.
New patent liberalisation efforts are already underway, with far more intensive lobbying efforts behind them, and there's no reason to suppose they won't make it through the process this time. Unless, that is, those with something at stake get involved.
No Lobbyists As Such: The War over Software Patents in the European Union
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