Software patents are worthwhile for worthwhile things. Last year the EU decided on changes to limit software patents in Europe that would have had an effect of limiting trivial patents that actively stifle innovation; the direct opposite effect patents are aiming to achieve. Now it would seem that a redraft of the European software patents bill has pushed many of the items that were decided against back into the bill, making it much more similar to the American style of software patenting.
In America, all sorts of crazy software patents exist. A notable one last year was one for embedding media in webpages, such as Flash movies. The company was fortunately defeated, but the very fact that this patent was granted when there was obvious prior use of the patented item from years before the patent was filed illustrates the madness of the situation.
Patenting was designed to encourage companies to innovate. In gaining a patent they could protect their investment in the R&D for the invention. Things like mp3 deserve patents; they are the product of long periods of research and investment and are new ways of doing things. Patenting things that are viewed as standard parts of the user interface — Apple have filed a patent for drop-shadows as a UI device — just seems to be a stop backwards all around.
I do come at this from an open-source biased perspective, I admit. Open source and Free software stands in a unique position to lose out from software patents of such trivial “features”. Still, I believe these patents are bad for the industry as a whole; Free, open-source or proprietary. If large companies — Microsoft, Apple and other major players chief among them — are allowed to patent pretty much anything, they gain even more control over small companies; allowing them to licence their patents in very uncompetitive ways. This cannot be good for innovation, business or software.