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Patricia Hewitt, Minister for e-commerce and Kim Howells, Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs today launched a consultation on the need for patents to protect computer programs and internet trading methods.

Ministers have initiated the debate in recognition of the impact of e-commerce and the Internet in transforming the UK economy. The UK software and computer services market is the second largest in Europe, worth £21 billion. There are over 105,000 companies operating in this sector in the UK including all of the major global players. A third of the population are now online and over a quarter work in businesses that trade online.

Mrs Hewitt said:

"We all know about patents for machines, chemicals and electronics. I believe they have served us well in bringing forward the technologies we all use, and which we often take for granted. With the e-commerce sector becoming increasingly significant to the UK economy, it is vital that we initiate a debate on the need for patents in this area.

"We are seeking input on the potential impact of patents on innovation and growth, as well as feedback on the system in the US, where software and e-commerce patents are already available.

"These issues could profoundly affect the environment in which we do business. We need comments from all those who will be affected including those in the service, financial and business sectors who may never have come across patents before."

Dr Howells said:

"We want to promote innovation and enterprise in UK industry. It is vital to strike the right balance between allowing exclusive patent rights without reducing competition and exploitation of ideas in this exciting and rapidly developing field.

"Until now companies have been able to develop computer software and business methods often without patents: this might change across Europe. We must make sure that those most likely to be affected know what the possibilities are and have the chance to make their views known."

Ministers have asked the Patent Office to raise awareness, encourage debate and collect views. The Patent Office website (www.patent.gov.uk) provides background information about patents and how they may affect computer programs and business. It invites views on what arrangements would be of most benefit to business, consumers and the economy and offers a dedicated newsgroup for online discussion. There is also a link to the newly published European Commission consultation paper on the patentability of computer implemented inventions, so that views can also be registered directly with Brussels.



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Notes for Editors

1. Patents are restricted to the protection of technical inventions. Present UK law (the Patents Act 1977) and the European Patent Convention (1973) exclude computer software as such and methods of doing business as such from patent protection. These exclusions have been in place for many years but the pace of change of technology and the growing importance of e-commerce is calling into question the current regime.

2. Following decisions in the Supreme Court, US practice has moved towards granting patents for software and non-technical business methods. Such divergence of practice has called into question the current European regime.

3. Details are available on the Patent Office website http://www.patent.gov.uk


The Patent Office Newsgroup is at news://discuss.patent.gov.uk/patentoffice.softpat


4. The Commission document is available on the DG Internal Market website at:
http://europa.eu.int/comm/internal_market/en/intprop/indprop...

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