EU votes through software patent changes

EU votes through software patent changes

Summary: Update: After a stalled effort on Monday, the European Council has approved controversial changes to a draft directive, meaning that Europe is now likely to see widespread patenting of software programs

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TOPICS: Government UK
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The European Council on Tuesday voted through controversial changes to the European Union's Software Patents Directive that will pave the way for widespread patenting of software in Europe.

According to a spokesman at the UK's Department of Trade and Industry, which backed the changes, the vote removes many of the changes introduced last year by the European Parliament that would have limited the degree to which software programs could be patented.

"The text that was approved is very close to the original [European] Commission proposal," said a DTI spokesman, though he said the DTI had not yet seen the final amendments.

The Directive will now be sent back to the European Parliament for another vote there in the autumn as the different bodies of the EU engage in a game of legislative ping-pong. While observers expect vociferous lobbying from open-source and developer groups, reversing the Council's vote will be difficult, according to James Heald of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the rights of technology entrepreneurs and developers.

"The catch is that if the Parliament still doesn't like software patents, it has to have a majority of all MEPs to put its amendments, which means that in practice they need a two-to-one or three-to-one majority in the chamber," said Heald.

If the Parliament is successful in that vote, then it will go back to the Council for a second reading, and then if the Council still disagrees then it will go to a 'sudden death' reconciliation committee, which will have six weeks to settle the matter.

The Irish Presidency was hoping that a new draft of the EU's Software Patents Directive would be approved without discussion on Monday, but an objection from Luxembourg gave the issue an airing on Tuesday, though this seems to have little if any effect on the outcome.

The directive was developed to harmonise Europe's patent system based on best practices, but critics -- including software developers, economists, computer scientists and small businesses -- have argued the version developed by the European Parliament's judicial affairs committee was fatally flawed.

Objectors say the draft's wording was vague enough to effectively legitimise software patents, which would lead to patent warfare dominated by large corporations, already the situation in the US software industry. This argument was persuasive enough to convince MEPs to introduce a number of important amendments before approving the directive late last year.

However, the European Council, which is a body that represents all the governments of the European Union, gave the amended text of the proposal to an independent body of experts for redrafting. But developers -- many of them from the open-source community -- say the new draft dismisses the amendments made by the MEPs last year and in its present form may actually cause even more damage to the European software industry than the original.

In a letter to open-source software Web site LWN, the founder of MandrakeSoft Linux, Gael Duval, said the redrafted proposal was written by people with a common interest in allowing software to be patented.

"They are mostly representatives from the national patent offices, backed by the heads of the legal departments of some big industrial companies, all of whom have a common interest. More patents mean more power for them, irrespective of the harm that will be done to the economy at large, and even to their own companies," Duval said.

James Heald of the FFII said the vote was originally scheduled to be pushed through on Monday morning as part of a block of proposals, but after one country's representatives objected, the directive will now be discussed as a separate issue this afternoon.

"The vote was going to be taken yesterday as part of a block of items that would get nodded through before the meeting had even started. It is now on the agenda as the second last item to be discussed today," Heald said.

Tom Watson is one UK MP who has written to the secretary of state for trade and industry, Patricia Hewitt, to express his objections. In his letter, Watson argued that if the proposal is approved in its current state it will represent a "failure in the decision-making process for Europe" and could bring the new European laws on intellectual property into disrepute.

"Whatever the arguments in favour of software patents are, this would be a serious misuse of power on such a widely contentious issue, and I would prefer that a minister from the United Kingdom took no part in promoting it," Watson said.

Topic: Government UK

Munir Kotadia

About Munir Kotadia

Munir first became involved with online publishing in 1998 when he joined ZDNet UK and later moved into print publishing as Chief Reporter for IT Week, part of ZDNet UK, a weekly trade newspaper targeted at Enterprise IT managers. He later moved back into online publishing as Senior News Reporter for ZDNet UK.

Munir was recognised as Australia's Best Technology Columnist at the 5th Annual Sun Microsystems IT Journalism Awards 2007. In the previous year he was named Best News Journalist at the Consensus IT Writers Awards.

He no longer uses his Commodore 64.

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10 comments
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  • Now it's time for us european to migrate to the west. How many bucks for a green card ?
    anonymous
  • The EU is just asking for a flood of litigation if their patent examiners are even twice as good as America's. Absolutely the wrong decision and a choice that will set back innovation for years to come.
    anonymous
  • That is so incredibly sad, I do not find any word to tell...

    Why does Europe feel like doing like the United States and even worse ?

    Hope we'll reverse that horrible trend some day !

    Signed: a guy who wants to live in a better world not one that become more and more proprietary every day. There will be a revolution. Think about the world we are leaving to our children ! I hope some day they'll destroy all they have gotten from us. Maybe they'll recover their freedom to think and do...
    anonymous
  • It's really a sad day for software developpers (and users!) in Europe. All hope is not lost, we must inform ourcandidate MEPs on the subject to reclaim our protection *from* state-granted monopolies in the software market.
    And convince them that anti-trust sanctions are worthless, same as Resonable (??) and Non discriminatory licenecs for interoperability.
    What is reesonable for a big (US?) compagny is to kill all (non discriminatorily!) competitors !
    Anything that requires a trial (ie. for judging if reasonable) is worthless for SMEs)
    anonymous
  • Il nous faut prendre le pouvoir et organizer manifestations et petitions.

    Quand les technocrates de Bruxelles et politiques inf
    anonymous
  • Fight, sure, but how ???

    OK, we can tell our MPs, but they just don't care, sadly.

    I feel the problem is we'll find it hard to get people together to fight this : people who work in computing in France are not enough aware of what's looming, and the future implications. And they're not ready to act.

    That may be a hard statement
    anonymous
  • Hey stop whining.
    If you didn't bribe the right politicians at the right time thats just tough.
    Its too late to complain now!!
    This is DEMOCRACY(TM)
    anonymous
  • We get the politicians and civil servants we deserve!. Europe faces a moribund economy with few prospects or opportunities of growth that might kick start it.

    Software is an area that has some potential to help start that growth and in one quick move we hand the game to the Far East because of a presumed combination of incompetence and vested interests and a lack issue awareness among the people it ultimately affects: software developers and consumers. Whose fault is that...?

    Will the last person leaving please turn out the lights (sic). (probably a patent lawyer?)
    anonymous
  • The US patent system has become an absolute circus in so far as it applies to software and process patents. It has got to undo itself for people to plainly see it's short comings. This has to happen soon.

    If only the EU could really see what chaos is going on there. It's like kids playing a game of "I said it first".
    anonymous
  • Finally a break for all my work and effort.I own 56 computer programs I copyrighted in 1984.I havent been paid a cent for all these years from companies using my intellectual property.
    All the sour grapes from people is because they didn't take steps to protect their programs when they wrote them.They just gave their codes away.I published a book with my programs inside and the critics slammed my book as too simple but my programs have never changed in all these years.Yes, stuff has been added to my programs but the beginning codes are all still the same so I'm gonna get paid !
    anonymous