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Patent Office Preparing Software Guidelines

June 2, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The confusing process of obtaining legal protection for computer software is getting some help from the Patent Office.

New guidelines for patent examiners will help clarify what can be patented and how they are to treat computer programs when a patent is sought.

``This new guideline ... may give the U.S. the broadest protection for software-related invention in the world, which should give an enormous boost to software innovating companies,″ said Peter K. Trzyna, a patent attorney with the firm of Keck, Mahan and Cate in Chicago.

Whether software should be patentable is a matter of dispute, with most programs protected by the copyright laws in the past. But following a series of lawsuits, courts ruled that programs also were entitled to patent protection, and a few program patents have been issued.

The new guidelines will turn the software patenting focus toward originality and innovation, giving the United States a leadership role in this area, Trzyna said.

``Our economy has moved more to a service economy and those services depend to a great degree on software rather than continuing to focus on just Rust Belt industry protection,″ he said.

``It recognizes that the times have changed ... that there is a technology that goes with the times we are in that and it merits protection,″ he said.

``This is an area we will become heavily involved in in the future, so we have to establish guidance for people,″ said Patent Office spokesman Richard Maulsby.

Under the guidelines, the series of specific operational steps to be performed by a program can be considered a ``process,″ which means it can be patented.

In addition, patents often specify the ``means″ of accomplishing some action. Under the rule, that would include ``a series of operations performed by a computer under the direction of a computer program.″

The rule excludes patents for such material as machine-readable music, art or literature, however, as well as programs that merely manipulate abstract ideas or concepts.

While they don’t last as long as copyrights, patents provide broader protection and may result in larger damage awards in infringement suits.

A patent can cover a broad claim for a machine or process, protecting an inventor from someone who develops a slightly different way of doing the same thing. A copyright, on the other hand, only protects the holder from direct copying, or plagiarism.

Currently patents, administered by the Commerce Department, give the owner exclusive rights for 17 years from the date the patent is issued. Starting June 8, that will change to 20 years from the date the application is filed. Copyrights last for the lifetime of the author plus 50 years.

Before the recent court decisions, the Patent Office had issued patents to programs running on computers but not for programs on discs.

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