Protests derail software patents vote

Warnings that a controversial directive could devastate European software businesses have struck a chord with MEPs

The European Parliament has delayed voting on a controversial software-patents directive, following protests and criticism by computer scientists and economists. The vote, originally planned for Monday, will now take place at a plenary session starting on 22 September.

Software patents have been likened to allowing a monopoly on the ideas behind stories, and opponents of the draft Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions claim it would effectively allow unlimited software patents. Under the liberal patent regime in the US, large companies acquire arsenals of patents which they use to protect themselves from upstart competition.

The directive, drafted by Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy, has generated political opposition from the Greens and the European Socialist Party (PSE), among others. The German and French socialist parties are using the delay as an opportunity to raise MEPs' awareness of the issues surrounding software patents ahead of the late-September plenary session.

A demonstration in Brussels last week attracted more than 400 participants, organised by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) and Eurolinux, among other groups, which also persuaded several hundred Web sites to black out their front pages in protest.

A June vote on the proposal was put back amid criticism by MEPs that the legislation would institute a US-style patent regime that would be detrimental to European small businesses and open-source software developers.

The proposed software-patenting legislation is the result of a European Commission effort to clarify patenting rules as they apply to "computer-implemented inventions", a term that can be taken to include software. The patent offices of different EU member states currently have different criteria for accepting the validity of software-related patents, which is a situation that the Commission's proposal aims to remedy.

MEP McCarthy said in a June analysis of the proposed directive that there were links between the patentability of computer-related inventions and the growth of IT industries in the US. Such patents aided "in particular the growth of small and medium enterprises and independent software developers", she wrote, citing a study on the issue carried out for the European Parliament by London's Intellectual Property Institute.

But in a recent letter criticising the directive, a group of economists poured scorn on any notion that software patents and business growth are connected, saying most economic research does not support this claim. They argued that the directive in its current form would "have serious detrimental effects on European innovation, growth, and competitiveness".

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