There was an old story about the Gordian knot, a knot of incredible complexity made out of cornel bark that pretty much couldn't be untied thanks to its incredible complexity and the fact that no one could find the end of the knot in order to even try untying it in the first place. At least until, according to the story, Alexander the Great showed up, took a look at the monster knot, and just took his sword to it. New Zealand, meanwhile, seems to be taking a similar approach to the constant struggle over patent rights with its new Patents Bill that effectively bans software patents in the country.
Debate over the Patents Bill in question has been going on, at last report, for the last five years, but with the debate now over, and the bill passed, getting a patent on software in New Zealand will no longer fly. New Zealand Commerce Minister Craig Foss calls the move a “significant step towards driving innovation in New Zealand,” as well as a measure “giving New Zealand businesses more flexibility to adapt and improve existing inventions, while continuing to protect genuine innovations.”
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Reaction, overall, has been mixed to the bill's passing. Groups like the Institute of IT Professionals have come out very much in favor of it—the ITTP's chief executive, Paul Matthews, called it a situation in which “old law met new technology and came out on the side of New Zealand's software innovators”—and several lobbyist groups have been fighting against it almost since the outset. Matthews and the ITTP, however, have been clearly against the matter for some time, with 94 percent of ITTP members polled coming out against software patents.
Matthews further explained the reasoning behind being against software patents by saying, “The patents system doesn’t work for software because it is almost impossible for genuine technology companies to create new software without breaching some of the hundreds of thousands of software patents that exist, often for very obvious work. Today’s historic legislation will support our innovative technology industry, and sends a clear message to the rest of the world that New Zealand won’t tolerate the vexatious practice of ‘patent trolls.’”
This is much like getting to the root of the problem by cutting through it with a sword. While indeed, there have been a lot of issues in terms of software patents—lawsuits break out on a fairly regular basis around the practice—the idea of simply declaring patents on software to be over and done with doesn't exactly seem like the greatest idea. But by like token, it's clear that there's something very wrong with the patents system as we know it, especially seeing it used like a weapon rather than as a means to protect inventions. Recently, the SUITS Conference—part of the ITEXPO event, still going on at the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort in Las Vegas through Aug. 29—covered exactly this kind of topic, and is still doing so. There's problem enough to go around within this concept, and a lot of room to insert other possible solutions to the issues around software patents.
Some may not agree with New Zealand's approach—comparisons to situations involving babies and bathwater are almost certain—yet at the same time, it's clear that something needs to be done. While New Zealand's solution may not be optimal, it may ultimately be the only real solution that can be.
Edited by Alisen Downey