Campaigners celebrate patent directive defeat

Two weeks ago, those who opposed the software patent directive thought they were in 'deep trouble', but they are now rejoicing at what they consider a massive victory

Opponents of sofware patents are celebrating the European Parliament's virtually unanimous decision on Wednesday to reject the directive on the patentability of computer implemented inventions. Rufus Pollock from the UK branch of the Federation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) toasted what he claimed was a "massive victory" with champagne at a party attended by other campaigners against software patents.

Although pro-patent campaign groups such as CompTIA, EICTA and Intellect had lobbied for the directive to be passed by parliament, they claim to welcome the European Parliament's decision. John Higgins, the director general of Intellect, said that he preferred that the directive had been rejected rather than being passed with amendments that would have narrowed the scope of patentability.

ZDNet UK spoke to those on both sides of the debate to get their views on the European Parliament's decision and find what they plan to do next.

Rufus Pollock from the FFII UK

Pollock said this decision is a "total defeat for the pro-patent lobby". When told about the pro-patent groups publicly claiming to welcome the decision, he responded: "They didn't think that a week ago." Pollock claimed the pro-patent groups changed their voting tactic due to "fear" that amendments to the directive favoured by the anti-patent lobby would be agreed.

The directive was almost unanimously rejected, with 648 MEPs voting in favour, 18 abstentions, and only 14 MEPs voting against. But victory was in no way certain a couple of weeks ago when the European Parliament legal affairs committee (JURI) voted against a number of amendments to the directive that would have restricted the extent to which software could be patented.

Pollock admitted that JURI's decision had worried the FFII. "Ten days ago we were praying — we thought we were in deep trouble after the JURI committee rejection."

He said it has been difficult for anti-patent campaigners to have as much impact as the pro-patent lobby, as they are volunteers who cannot afford to lobby full time.

"A lot of the people on our side only do stuff at the last minute — they have a business to run, they don't have time to do lobbying. In the last days people have gone 'arrgh it's happening now'," said Pollock.

As for the future, Pollock said many campaigners will first need to rest before continuing their campaign. "Some people are exhausted — we are going to sleep for a week," he said.

Pollock claims to have only slept two hours the night before the vote, which followed three months of voluntary campaigning taking up between 20 and 30 hours of his time each week. He said he has committed this time because he feels so strongly about the issue.

The FFII believes that the fight against software patents is not over.

"This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. Every year that goes by this side gets stronger," said Pollock. "There's a lot of work to be done but we have an incredible basis."

Alan Cox, maintainer of the Linux kernel

Cox joined the FFII in celebrating the defeat of the patent directive, but echoed Pollock's sentiments that the fight is far from over. "I'm delighted that the directive has been killed. It's a rare and much welcomed victory for democracy in the EU. It is however just the opening battle in a war," he said.

Wookey, a Debian developer and technical director at Aleph One

Wookey said it would have been better for the European Parliament to pass the amendments, but this could have been risky as the EU Council and European Commission (EC) may have ignored these amendments.

"It would have been nice for Parliament to vote for a version which it made clear that software patents were outlawed, but the Council and Commission had made it clear that Parliament would simply be ignored again if it did that, so this rejection is probably the best outcome. It sends a powerful message to the authorities that they cannot simply ignore the stated will of the people and the great majority of European businesses," said Wookey.

The Council and EC do not have a good record on respecting Parliament's requests — the EC rejected Parliament's request to restart the directive, and the Council rewrote many of the changes introduced by the Parliament and ratified these changes despite Parliament's request for the directive to be restarted.

Eva Lichtenberger, Austrian Green Party MEP

The Greens/EFA group supported the rejection of the directive and has called on the European Patent Office to stop issuing software patents.

"MEPs have given the software patents directive a third-class burial. Today's rejection was necessary," said Lichtenberger in a statement.

"The European Patent Office must now accept that there are no majorities in favour of software patents. The office must halt its current practice of granting patents for software, a practise for which there is no legal basis. The EPO should think now about creating policies that benefit not only big business," she said.

The European United Left and Nordic Green Left party (GUE/NGL)

GUE/NGL celebrated Parliament's decision, claiming that this will allow small businesses to compete against multinationals.

"From today, a wide range of alternatives to Microsoft, SAP and products developed by other multinationals will be available," said a GUE/NGL spokesman in a statement. "Small and medium-sized businesses will be able to invest in software development instead of wasting money in legal battles to patent their products."

Sarah Ludford, UK Liberal Democrat MEP

Ludford is disappointed that the Parliament rejected the directive.

"Rejection only prolongs the uncertainty around patentability of software-related inventions in the EU. It is running away from the need to take a decision," she said in a statement.

"I deeply regret that MEPs are proving incapable of coming up with a sensible version of the text, one which could ensure support for innovation but also reassure software writers and users that we were not going down an American-style route of allowing patents for pure software."

Hugo Lueders, director of public policy at CompTIA

Lueders said it "welcomed" the parliament's decision, calling it an "acceptable outcome under difficult circumstances."

"Conflicting views have confused the issue and made it difficult for the EP to reach a clear and balanced decision that would adequately support innovation in Europe," he said.

Mark MacGann, director general at EICTA

EICTA also said it welcomed Parliament's decision. "This is a wise decision that has helped industry to avoid legislation that could have narrowed the scope of patent legislation in Europe," said MacGann.  

John Higgins, director general at Intellect

Higgins echoed MacGann's sentiments. "This is a clear and positive decision by EU parliamentarians, which has avoided introducing damaging new legislation narrowing patentability, leaving in place the existing legal framework," he said.

Simon Gentry, director at Campaign for Creativity

The Campaign for Creativity was more reserved in its reaction to Parliament's rejection of the directive. "Today’s decision represents a lost opportunity for Europe to establish a common ground for high-tech innovation that would help foster further successes and development in this field," said Gentry.