Software and Databases

Software Patents

In the UK and Europe, only some types of computer programs are patentable, unlike in the United States where computer programs are generally patentable. Computer programs are currently protected by copyright laws (see copyright information fact sheet for more information about copyright). Protection of software in this way stops a computer program being copied verbatim but doesn’t stop another individual from creating a program that has exactly the same function. However, creating such a program from scratch is likely to take a considerable investment of time and effort.

Software (also referred to as Computer-Implemented Inventions or CIIs) can generally be patented in European countries provided the software produces a ‘technical effect’ or ‘technical contribution’. Examples of such patents include software for the progress bars seen on computer screens and programmes allowing payment by credit card. In the USA the situation is different to that in Europe as patenting of software is freely allowed and companies such as Microsoft own a large number of patents (as of March 2006, Microsoft alone owned 5,000 patents) including patents on the file formats for ‘Word’ documents and for the use of short, long or double clicks to launch different applications on ‘limited resource computing devices’ such as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and mobile phones. There has been much opposition to software patents being introduced within the EU as some feel that it would produce a patent situation similar to that in America which some have argued has made independent software development ‘unworkable’ (Rasmus Lerdof, the infrastructure architect at Yahoo and creator of the PHP Web scripting language). The benefits of harmonising the rules relating to software patents in Europe would include greater certainty for the public and industry and reducing the variation in practice of the different national patent offices and the European Patent Office.

Unless stated otherwise in your contract or through a separate agreement, any IP pertaining to software that you have developed in the course of your employment will be owned by your employer and not by yourself

Database Right

Databases are protected by a right similar to copyright which is referred to as database right. Like copyright, database right is an automatic right and so no registration is required for it to apply. However, the database must be the result of substantial investment (time, money) and the right can apply to both paper and electronic databases. Database right lasts for 15 years from the making or the publication of the database (whichever is the sooner) and protects the extraction and re-use of the contents of the database. For example, database right can be infringed simply by rearranging the contents of a database. If the database is significantly altered during this 15 year period, or other significant investments put into it, then it may re-qualify for another 15 year period of protection. Databases can also be covered by copyright (if there is originality in the selection or arrangement of the contents) and it is not uncommon for databases to be covered by both copyright and database right. Unless stated in your contract or through a separate agreement, database rights will be owned by your employer and not by yourself.

Whilst you are in their employment you may freely use the database, but if you leave then you will need to seek permission to carry on using the database but may not use it for any commercial purpose or distribute it to third parties. If the database is a clinical one, then it is important that if third-parties are granted permission to use it and that all patient information is removed from it (due to the requirements of the data protection act). Like copyright, database right can be sold or assigned.

These software patent and database rights facts have been produced in conjunction with Urquhart-Dykes and Lord, Patent Attorneys (Tel: 0113 245 2388; e-mail: email@udl.co.uk). It is provided for the purposes of information only and is not intended as a comprehensive guide to copyright. In any cases where you have concerns or require advice regarding intellectual property matters, you should get in touch with your IP lead or Medipex.

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These software patent and database rights facts have been produced in conjunction with Urquhart-Dykes and Lord, Patent Attorneys (telephone 0113 245 2388 or email email@udl.co.uk). It is provided for the purposes of information only and is not intended as a comprehensive guide to software patent and database rights. In any cases where you have concerns or require advice regarding intellectual property matters, you should get in touch with your IP lead or email Medipex.

For further information visit our Software and Database FAQs page.