Lord David Sainsbury of Turville and Software Patents

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Lord David Sainsbury of Turville is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Science and Innovation of the United Kingdom under the government of Tony Blair. Sainsbury is a billionaire with some involvement in biotech patenting. He has allowed the UK Patent Office to act as a chief promoter of legislative initiatives to legalise software and business method patents in Europe.

News & Chronology

General Information

Sainsbury is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Minister for Science and Innovation

Lord Sainsbury of Turville responsibilities include:

So, this is the main person dealing with software patents in the UK.

Writing to David Sainsbury

Further Reading

anonymous comment (edited)

Sainsbury is unusual for a UK minister (according to the civil servants), because he is very interested in this policy area (innovation), and has wanted to be much more closely briefed and involved than most ministers would be, in what is seen as a primarily technocratic policy area, with comparatively little media opportunity. Unlike most UK ministers who are MPs, and very interested in publicity, Sainsbury is not an MP, and apparently is genuinely motivated to try to do what he thinks will protect innovation. He's also spent an unprecedented long time in the same post (6 years, I think) -- UK ministers usually rotate after only two or three.

He has got a big business background (he was previously an executive, maybe even CEO, at J. Sainsbury & co, one of the UK's big 4 supermarket chains, of which his family are still the largest shareholders). There was also a brief row a few years ago, because a company he is invested in is a small biotech concern with some biotech patents -- though the holding is through a hands-off "blind trust", through which he has no influence.

My impression is that he believes patents are certainly useful in biotech; that they help introduce a commercial element into innovation, which makes it more likely that dreamy ideas will get turned into hard products and real companies; and he evidently believes there would be a substantial dislocation in the electronics/telecoms/consumer goods sector if the rules of patentability changed too much.

On the other hand, the officials know exactly what is being patented and what isn't, and also have an agenda.

I think their strongest instinct may be a feeling that the existing law is very untidy in this area -- remember that in the UK system, existing case-law has almost unchallengeable authority; and even EPO decisions are taken very very seriously. But on the other hand, the dividing lines which are anomalous, capricious, and hard to understand - why is some software 'technical' and other software isn't; wouldn't the rules be a lot simpler and clearer if in effect all software was technical.

So I think this is one motivation.

Secondly, they have been persuing this project since a consultation in 1994 -- eleven years ago -- at which time they only received a single response against software patentability.

Thirdly, I think their perception of opponents of software patents at any rate used to be that they were economically irrelevent idealists/anarchists.

They still like the Council text, and want it to go through unaltered, and want to close the file on the directive.

Bottom line, according to Lord Sainsbury:

No patents on accounting packages, spreadsheets, translation software, computer-aided design, internet trading, portfolio management, on-line auctions.

Yes to patents on traffic control, medical imaging, washing machines, breadmaking, robot arms, mobile phones, and vehicle software.

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