Patent laws are unclear as they stand, according to the government, but software makers will not be able to patent their virtual inventions.

The government outlined its plans yesterday on patents to protect computer programs and internet trading methods, but offered little change over current rules. In effect it threw the controversial issue over to the EU to legislate. Software should not be patentable, nor should business methods, the Department of Trade and Industry decided.

"There should be no significant change to the patentability of software," said e-Minister Patricia Hewitt. "[Since patent laws are currently unclear] urgent European action to clarify is needed," she said.

The government also determined that business methods should remain unpatentable.

"Our key principle is that patents should be for technological innovations," explained Hewitt. "A program for a new machine tool should be patentable but a non-technological innovation, such as grammar-checking software for a word processor, should not be," Hewitt said.

The European Commission (EC) is currently reviewing patent laws for the EU. The government will send its recommendations, such as they are, to the EC, the DTI said.