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European Patent Convention
The European Patent Convention (EPC) is an international agreement signed by most countries of Europe in 1973. The primary organ created by the EPC is the European Patent Office (along with the Europan Patent Organisation).
The EPC is published officially in English, French, and German. It was revised in 2000, but not in ways that affected the (non-)patentability of software ideas.
The membership currently includes all the countries that form the European Union, plus others. As of August 2010, there are 38 member signatories of the EPC: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Macedonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
 Article 52: patentable subject matter
 The exact text
(1) European patents shall be granted for any inventions, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are susceptible of industrial application.
(2) The following in particular shall not be regarded as inventions within the meaning of paragraph 1:
- (a) discoveries, scientific theories and mathematical methods;
- (b) aesthetic creations;
- (c) schemes, rules and methods for performing mental acts, playing games or doing business, and programs for computers;
- (d) presentations of information.
(3) Paragraph 2 shall exclude the patentability of the subject-matter or activities referred to therein only to the extent to which a European patent application or European patent relates to such subject‑matter or activities as such.
The most important words are "The following in particular shall not be regarded as inventions [...] programs for computers [...] as such".
The words "in particular" imply that this is a non-exhaustive list, meaning these should not be interpreted narrowly.
 The common trait of the exclusions
The excluded acts are all things that some people do for free - as a hobby, or by accident, or while doing something else. It's a common philosophy which prevents patents from being a burden on fields in which progress would be greatly burdened by the slow, expensive patent system.
- (See also: Software progress happens without patents)
The "doing business" exclusion is for "schemes, rules and methods for [...] doing business", so it's also for lawmakers who regulate business, and for commentators, advice bodies and the act of designing these schemes, rules and methods is also done at no cost in the phase before launching a company.
 Travaux préparatoires
On the utility of the documents written during the drafting of the EPC, the "travaux preparatoires", UK's Lord Justice Jacob said in the 2006 Aerotel v. Telco ruling: what help can be had from the travaux preparatoires to the EPC? The answer is not a lot. Jacob cites two articles written by Dr. Justine Pila of the Oxford University Intellectual Property Research Centre:
- Dispute over the Meaning of “Invention” in Art.52(2) EPC – The Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions in Europe 36 IIC 173;
- Art.52(2) of the Convention on the Grant of European Patents: What did the Framers Intend? 36 IIC 755
According to the EPO, as written in EPO EBoA referral G3-08 (page 12 of 18):
computer programs were to be understood as a 'mathematical application of a logical series of steps in a process which was no different from a mathematical method
The document claims this is backed up by "a statement by the United Kingdom delegation in the travaux préparatoires", and gives the reference: "Minutes of the 9th meeting of Working Party I, Luxembourg, 12-22 October 1971, BR 135 e/71 prk, p50, 96".
 Comparing exclusions
To look for insight into how the exclusion on "programs for computers" was intended to be interpreted, we can compare it to the other things excluded and look for a common logic, such as:
- They're all things that individuals do without necessarily expecting financial return
If this underlying logic is accepted, then developing software for computers must be excluded.
 Case law
A 25-page appendix in the UK 2006 Aerotel v. Telco ruling discusses EPC case law in the section Analysis of the Case Law.
 Dangers of the EPC being changed
Unanimity among signatories is required to change the EPC, and this is rather unlikely.
A second possibility, raised by FFII, is that the "Implementing Regulations" of the EPC could be changed if 75% of signatories agree. According to FFII, biotechnology patents were legitimised in this way.
 Related pages on en.swpat.org
- Article 52, English version
- (in French) Article 52, French version
- (in German) Articel 52, German version
- Wikipedia: Software patents under the European Patent Convention
- Analysis of how the EPO justifies granting software patents under the EPC
- Art 52 EPC: Interpretation and Revision, by FFII
- Software patents under the European Patent Convention, Arnoud Engelfriet on how to make the software exclusion meaningless
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