European software patents not pending

The convoluted politics of the new Europe have saved us from software patents. Thank you, Poland. Now we'll be able to see which is the best approach, that of the EU or the US

It may have escaped your notice, but we Europeans are now the biggest federation on earth. With 25 nations and 455 million people in the European Union, we're bigger than the US on almost any metric that matters. We're not one nation but in matters economic we do have one law – and that law is set to overturn software patents, thanks to brand-new member Poland.

Here's something else that may have escaped your attention – as it escaped the lobbyists behind the unwelcome idea that Europe wanted software patents. The mathematics of the voting system in the European Council is similar to the presidential electoral college in the US: different states get different numbers of votes according to their population. When Poland and nine other states joined in May, this mathematics had to be redone – and the new numbers have just come into effect, before the vote that would enshrine the patent legislation. The new numbers fall 16 short of the majority needed: Poland has 27 votes. Our Ohio has come through.

It is entirely appropriate that Poland should have the casting vote here. Its role in technology history is under-appreciated -- Polish intelligence had made great progress in decrypting Enigma messages by the time WW2 broke out, giving Bletchley Park information that led directly to those famous successes and their consequences. These days, Poland – like many of the recently democratised European states – has seized on enterprise and consumer IT, from high level security through to video game production, as a quick way to get ahead. No wonder it is so cool on the idea of software patents, which protect the established and the rich at the expense of the innovative and risk-taking.

In many ways, Poland and the other ex-communist states are our California. The weather's not so hot, but the spirit of creativity and possibilities newly unleashed is very strong. And that spirit is not with software patents: it is scandalous that they got so near to being on the books. Scandalous, but unsurprising – Bill Gates is always welcome at Number 10, but Tony Blair probably thinks Linus Torvalds is the name of a Norwegian shipping company. Bill, you forgot Poland.

We're big enough not to need the US: instead, US software will labour under the extra inconvenience and cost of licensing agreements, while European software will be free to be developed and distributed as we see fit. If the US wants to give us a monopoly on free and open-source software, then we'll have to cope as best we can.

It has always been the contention of the big names behind software patents that they encourage and protect innovation. We say they do the opposite. Now, thanks to Poland, we'll have a chance of finding out who was right all along.