India has announced a hold on plans to clarify the software patent process within the country, a move that has both critics and supporters up in arms. In one camp, patent supporters argue that the investment in a new piece of software has to be protected both financially and by reputation against cheap imitators, while critics of software patents claim that software patents do nothing but lead to expensive litigation to fight infringement claims.
It’s important to note that a patent is not the same as a copyright, a separate legal protection which software currently has in India. Basically, a software copyright protects the exact sequence of code written to create that product, just like the exact arrangement of notes protects a piece of music or the precise order of words protects an author’s book. The patent, on the other hand, would be like securing the entire conceptual product of a word processor, instead of simply securing a specific word processor. Copyrights protect a single word processing software, where patents could potentially block everyone else from even writing a program for a word processor.
The anti-patent camp has some strong supporters, including the founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the original chairs of the Mozilla Foundation. This type of artificial wall built around software halts innovation and goes against everything that open source software seeks to establish, namely an interwoven community of creators who spread their knowledge and expertise to others.
Supporters of the patent initiative claim that other countries’ patent systems are indeed flawed, which is why India needs tighter and more clarified regulation of how software patents will function in order to avoid those countries’ mistakes. For now, however, the Indian Patent Office has halted any further work on its earlier ruling that software that can have industrial uses could be patented. Some 300+ patents have already been issued for software since 2009, and almost all of them have been filed in India by foreign companies. Critics argue this is a effectively a block on innovation in India and needs to be corrected.