U.K. to probe 'patent thickets'

Companies using patents to hamper innovation may be targets in U.K. as review of intellectual property law kicks off.

The leader of a wide-ranging review of the U.K.'s intellectual property legislation has vowed to address the issue of companies abusing the patent system.

Speaking at a seminar in London on Thursday, Andrew Gowers acknowledged concerns that the present system may hamper competition.

"There is an accusation of a rise of companies sitting defensively on patents," Gowers said. "There are patent thickets, which are a complex web of patents which may stunt invention and discourage research and development."

Gowers, a former editor of the Financial Times, was chosen by the government late last year to lead an independent review into intellectual-property rights in the U.K.

Last year, the European Commission came close to approving a directive that would have made pure software applications patentable across Europe. Although the directive was eventually abandoned, campaigners fear that similar legislation could be introduced in the future.

Microsoft executives also attended Thursday's seminar and indicated that the company would support changes to the existing laws related to intellectual property.

"Reform is needed, especially in the U.S., to curb the excessive litigation costs," said Chris Parker, senior director of law and corporate affairs at Microsoft.

Last year, Microsoft estimated that it spends around $100 million a year on patent lawsuits. This makes only a small dent in its multibillion-dollar revenue but illustrates how hard it could be for companies with less revenue to defend themselves.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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