Software patents vote delayed

The European Parliament, facing mounting controversy over US-style software-patenting legislation, is to delay a key vote until September

A Monday vote on a controversial software patents proposal in the European Parliament has been put back until September, 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 includes software. The patent offices of different EU member states currently have different criteria for accepting the validity of software-related patents, a situation which the Commission's proposal aims to remedy.

However, opponents of the suggested legislation charge that its ambiguity would effectively allow most software to be patented, a situation which currently exists in the US, and which critics have compared to allowing a monopoly on the ideas in novels.

Since February, the proposed directive of the European Parliament and of the European Council on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions has been considered by three European parliamentary committees, with a final vote by the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market (Juri) on 17 June. The Juri vote approved the proposal 19-9 with some modifications, and the resulting draft legislative resolution was to go before the European Parliament on 1 September of this year.

Shortly after the vote, however, the draft resolution was put on a fast-track process that moved the parliamentary vote up to 30 June. This vote would have effectively finalised the resolution as a Directive, which would take effect across the EU and ultimately be promulgated as local legislation by member states.

Late on Thursday of last week, MEPs successfully cancelled the 30 June vote, returning the vote to its original 1 September slot. MEPs argued that the draft as it stands is highly problematic, and said they needed more than 10 days to propose amendments. "It seems that we are on the verge of adopting a patenting regime modelled on that of the US, at the very moment when critics in that country have begun to be forceful and articulate in condemning it," said Andrew Duff MEP, a UK Liberal Democrat, in a statement. He, like some other MEPs, said they would be seeking to amend the draft resolution.

Miquel Mayol i Raynal, a Catalan MEP, said he felt that the draft legislation ignores the needs of small businesses, and should have taken into account an anti-software patenting petition organised by lobbying group EuroLinux, which garnered more than 150,000 signatures, as well as another signed by 30 senior European scientists.

"Blocking competition and free creativity in software is not good for consumers or cultural diversity, and it is a serious problem for the European economic fabric," he said in a statement.

Software developer lobbying groups hailed the delay as a victory for the democratic process. "With the big pressures in European institutions it might seem that only deep pocket lobbies would be taken into account, but our experience shows that public opinion, grass-roots efforts and a little coordination and organisation can still push the interests of the majority," stated Hartmut Pilch, president of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.

Writing in The Guardian earlier this month, Arlene McCarthy, the British Labour MEP who is guiding the software patents proposal through Parliament, argued that the legislation would "provide legal certainty for European software inventors" and protect the investments of small European software companies.

"It is time some of the 'computer rights campaigners' got real," she wrote. "Patents for software inventions will not go away. It is infinitely better for the EU to harmonise laws across the EU with a view to limiting patentability, than to continue with the mess of national courts and European Patent Office (EPO) systems, and the drift towards US patent models."


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