In Europe, patents were granted in the 60s whether they involved computer algorithms or not.
In the US, patentability of softwares was not allowed by the Patent and Trademark Office in 1970s until the Supreme Court intervened and ruled in 1981 that a computer program may be granted a patent as long as it is used to represent real-world realities (e.g., a program that monitors and analyzes earthquakes)
Patent gives an inventor the right to exclude all others from making, selling, or using an invention for 17 years. Copyright inheres in books, music, and other works of authorship from the moment they are created.
Copyright protects expression but not underlying ideas. Patents protect useful processes, machines, and compositions of matter.
In August 1989, Refac International, Ltd., sued six major spreadsheet publishers, including Lotus, Microsoft, and Ashton-Tate, claiming they had infringed on U.S. Patent No. 4,398,249. The patent deals with a technique called "natural order recalc," a common feature of spreadsheet programs that allows a change in one calculation to reverberate throughout a document. Refac itself does not have a spreadsheet program and is not even in the software industry. Its business is acquiring, licensing, and litigating patents.
On May 21, 1962, a British patent application entitled "A Computer Arranged for the Automatic Solution of Linear Programming Problems" was filed. The invention is concerned with efficient memory management for the simplex algorithm, and may be implemented by purely software means.
The patent, GB1039141, was granted on August 17, 1966. Corresponding patents in the same family were granted in five other European countries.
Since 2002, the EPO has approved over 30,000 software patents.
The struggle against software patents does not abate. In 2003, the EU parliament voted against patentability of computer algorithms and asserted freedom of publication and interoperation. However, since 2005, there has been a move towards a treaty called European Patent Litigation Agreement not subject to legislative review.
Patenting software inventions promotes investment in research and development.
A patent must publicly disclose the invention and so educate the public and advance the state of the art of the invention. Thus patents accelerate software development by making previously unknown and not obvious software inventions public.
Organizations should be able to protect their intellectual property.
Developers may be forced to pay license fees for standards that are covered by patents.
Patent applications are often kept secret until after a new invention becomes widely used. Hence developers have no way of knowing if a useful new idea may become patented in the future and no longer available to them.
Legal actions involving nebulous intellectual property issues are very expensive, slow and unpredictable.
Software is a field of mathematics. Software is a mathematical algorithm, a fancy mathematical equation, a calculation. Mathematical algorithms, equations, and calculations are not inventions any more than a number can be an invention.
Software patents have been pushed because of their purported benefits in terms of innovation, competition and transaction costs. Anti-software patents use the same themes to argue against software patenting.
In general, despite its announced intent, software patenting has largely been used to the capitalist advantage and has run against the free and open source software principles.