Two of the most prominent figures in the Linux world, Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox, are urging the European Parliament to reject a proposed directive on software patents when it comes up for a vote this week, saying it would bring "chaos" to European businesses and cause job loss.
Cox and Torvalds are the latest to protest against the proposed Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions, which will come before the European Parliament as part of a plenary session beginning on Monday. The vote, expected for Wednesday, was delayed earlier this month because of controversy over the issue.
Torvalds initiated the development of the Linux operating system kernel, and still leads the project, while Cox is one of the most influential Linux developers. The Linux operating system, which includes the Linux kernel as well as numerous components developed independently, has become an important force in the software industry, but its open-source development model could be threatened by software patents.
The draft directive has been presented as a harmonisation of European patent laws, which differ across member states. Proponents such as British Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy argue the directive would help small businesses by making the legal framework for computer-related patents more consistent.
Critics such as Cox and Torvalds, however, say the directive is worded in such a way that virtually any software or electronic business process could be patented, a situation that already exists in the US. Economists, computer scientists, software developers and a group representing two million small and medium-sized businesses have made similar criticisms.
"The experiences from the USA demonstrate that software patents don't benefit anyone but perhaps the patent lawyers," said Torvalds in a statement. "We hope that the members of the European Parliament see these negative sides and don't push the same chaos to the old continent."
In an open letter addressed to Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, Alan Cox and Torvalds argued that Linux is particularly at risk from software patents because it is not controlled, and thus directly protected by, a wealthy corporation.
Other concerns included the use of patents to limit competition from small businesses, to block interoperability and to prevent the publication of information. Cox also said that thousands of software development jobs could be lost, as companies may choose to outsource their development to a region without patent liability risks.
Cox and Torvalds urged MEPs to approve the directive only with amendments clearly limiting its scope, following the voting recommendations of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which has been campaigning against the directive in its current form.