Patents are granted for inventions, and because most mathematical formulae are deemed to be abstract ideas rather than inventions, formulae are not patentable in many countries. An express exclusion of computer software from patentability is provided for both under the European Patent Convention (EPC) and the UK Patents Act 1977. The EPC tends to take a liberal approach to this exclusion whereas the UK tends to be more restrictive, making it difficult for owners of computer programs to be sure of what protection they will be afforded by patent law.Copyright on the other hand is relatively straightforward: in the EU the Software Directive clearly states at Article 1 that: "Member States shall protect computer programs, by copyright, as literary works". Of course the protection offered by copyright is limited to original works, and protection extends only to the program exactly as it is written down. SAS v World Programming Ltd confirmed that neither the functionality of a computer program (i.e. the look and feel of the program when used) nor computer languages may be protected by copyright. Still the limited protection offered is clear, and in the UK copyright protection arises automatically without the need for an expensive application process as is the case for patents.
Computer software must be one of the few areas where patents and copyright overlap, making it interesting to look at the pros and cons of each type of protection. In particular the convergence of copyright with patents in the world of computer software indicates to this blogger that once again, we are trying to fit rules developed for art, music, scientific inventions and processes to the new world of computer science and the internet. The two do not always sit easily together so perhaps it is time for a new law, drafted specifically with the internet and computers in mind. What do readers think? Is it a question of square peg, round hole or can we (in common law jurisdictions at least) rely on case law to bring older legal concepts up to date?