Developers and mimes protest software patents

In Brussels, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to march - and mime - against a proposed directive they say could disrupt Europe's software industry

Several hundred demonstrators assembled in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels on Wednesday to protest a software-patents directive that critics say would wreak havoc on Europe's software industry.

The real-life protest was accompanied by an online campaign that saw more than 600 Web sites, including prominent open-source software sites, replace their front pages with a warning about the directive.

The protest centres on the proposed Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions, which would, critics say, legitimise patents on business processes and the ideas used in software. In the US, where such patents are allowed, large corporations such as IBM routinely stockpile patents to be used against competitors -- usually to the detriment of smaller companies.

Opponents want the directive to be rejected when it comes to a parliamentary vote on Monday, and refashion it in more restrictive terms. Economists, software developers, scientists and some large European IT companies have criticised the directive.

The protest's organisers, which included software developer and digital-rights lobbying groups from France, Germany, Belgium, Catalonia, Spain and Denmark, estimated that between 400 and 500 people took part in the demonstration, with 500 the maximum permitted by Brussels police.

The protestors wore black T-shirts with slogans such as "patent inflation is not a victimless crime", "protect innovation against software patents" and "software patents kill innovation" in English and French, and carried black balloons. Banners read, "software patents kill efficient software development" and, somewhat more catchily, "innovation not litigation".

For the benefit of onlookers and the national news media, the protestors carried out a mock funeral before tombstones reading, "maybe you'll be next!" in French and German.

A troupe of mimes in black masks acted out a parable about software patents, involving a fistfight between a businessman in a suit and a scruffy young software developer.

The outdoor demonstration was followed by a press conference in the Parliament building featuring talks by Henk Barendregt, chair of the Foundation of Mathematics and Computer Science at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, one of the computer scientists petitioning against the directive; Reinier Bakels, an attorney; the chief executive of an open-source software company called Nightlabs and Hartmut Pilch, the president of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which helped organise the protest.

Arlene McCarthy, the Labour MEP responsible for steering the proposal through the European Parliament, has argued that the directive is necessary to harmonise the patent regimes of the EU's member states and give inventors a consistent legal framework for patenting their computer-related innovations.

Some opponents of the directive say they support the idea of software patents, but believe the directive implements them in a way that will create more problems than it solves.