Today wasn’t a great day for software patents in the UK: the judgement in the appeal of the Symbian patent application GB 0325145.1 has been put up on Bailii, and the news is that the appeal was rejected. That means that Symbian’s patent will now be valid in the UK.
For those unaware of the patent, it’s effectively a patent on dynamic library loaders. It allows people to patch the binary interfaces (ABIs) of libraries in a manner which still allows you to load them quickly.
Symbian have managed to pass this off as “faster, more reliable operation” in the computer using the invention. This is basically nonsense.
In technical terms, the computer is obviously operating neither faster nor more reliably: it’s a different way of attacking the same problem which happens to have different results. The “unreliability” isn’t the computer malfunctioning somehow; it’s a result of the limitations of the original design.
It’s relatively easy to critique the application, but you might ask why no-one came up with this before. Like so many software patents, it’s not a question of invention really: it’s a matter of not having faced the problem being “solved”.
Symbian are in a relatively special position. They license out their operating system for others to distribute and modify. So, they are in a position where they need to cope with other people’s changes in a compatible manner.
No-one else really needs to solve this problem, hence it hadn’t been attacked. If you set a programmer this task – to come up with a way of having library indicies which would cope with third-party modifications – you’d probably find they come up with virtually the exact same thing.
So, a sad day for the UKIPO, who in this case were the good guys. The Judges were misled, I believe, by the case put forward by Symbian, since their patent doesn’t really do what it says on the tin.
However, it’s not the end of the world, in my opinion. I think other people will struggle to make the same argument for their patents. I do worry that this is a slippery slope: there is an error of logic in here which cannot be sustained indefinitely, but I don’t think that there is the mood to travel further in the direction of patenting at this point.