On Thursday I presented my submission on Software Patents to the Commerce Select Committee of Parliament. It was a fascinating experience, and one which is open to all New Zealanders.
It’s not my purpose here to rehearse the arguments against software patents in New Zealand, but to discuss how to go about submitting your views to Parliament for its consideration. It’s something I have done a couple of times, and I have also been, in the distant past, an official helping a Select Committee, so I have seen both sides.
The first step is know that a Select Committee is calling for submissions on a topic. If it’s an issue you care about – and I wouldn’t bother writing submissions about a topic I didn’t care about – you would likely know already that a Bill was before the House. Normally Bills, as draft Acts of Parliament are called, are referred to Select Committees soon after they are first introduced. The Select Committee will then typically call for public submission on the Bill. You can find out about this, including which Bills are open for submissions, on Parliament’s website.
Once you have decided to write a submission, spend some time thinking of the points you want to make. Don’t just rail against something, but think about what you want the Committee to do and why you want it do that. Write those down as clearly and concisely as you can. If it would help the Committee, comment on specific numbered sections of the Bill, and tell the Committee what you think those sections should say instead. Keep it short and to the point.
My experience went like this. I wrote a submission – about 2 pages making my points and urging the Committee not to allow software patents in New Zealand, and asking it for the opportunity to present orally to the Committee. I was later emailed and then telephoned by the Clerk of the Committee who arranged a time for me to appear in front of it.
The Committee met in the Maori Affairs Committee Room in Parliament, which is room full of beautiful carvings. There were about 8 member of the Committee present and handful of advisors, plus a few others waiting to deliver their submissions. I was told I had 15 minutes. I did not read out my submission, but rather I made some parallel points which illustrated and backed up my arguments. I was questioned on specific points by the Committee, and it was clear that they were very engaged on the detail of what they were considering and were asking me to help them clarify parts of that.
I was impressed by the dedication they were showing. Most of the members were clearly engaged in what is, frankly, pretty dry stuff with a lot of legal and technical detail to get right. The way the Chair handled the submitter after me was very impressive – she managed to get right to the heart of what seemed at first to be a rambling complaint, and revealed what seemed to be a genuine problem with the Bill (outside my area of expertise so I can’t comment on the detail).
Overall it was in interesting and empowering experience. The Select Committee does appear to be doing its best to consider every point of view. I hope it gets a law that we can all live with.