Liberal Democrats accused of double standards over patents

Campaigners claim that liberal MEPs went against party policy by voting against amendments to the software patent directive this week

European politicians representing parties including the UK's Liberal Democrats have been accused of acting against party policy in a recent vote over the software patent directive.

In a crucial vote at the JURI committee on Monday, MEPs from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) voted against a number of amendments to this directive. These amendments, which had been proposed by Michel Rocard (rapporteur for the JURI committee), would have limited the extent to which software could have been patented, according to campaigners.

Hartmut Pilch, the president of Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the Liberal Democrats have behaved in a "schizophrenic" manner over the patent directive. He said that German liberal MEP Alexander Alvaro's vote was in contradiction to the policy of his party -- Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP), which opposes software patenting.

"Since 2000 the German party (the FDP) have confirmed over and over again that their official position is to prevent software patents and to support the line of Rocard," said Pilch.

David Chan, a developer at Clockwork Software Systems, said that he was unhappy that the UK's Liberal Democrat MEP, Diana Wallis, voted against the amendments. He pointed out that this appears to be in contradiction to the UK Liberal Democrat's policy on patents. The UK Liberal Democrat's IT policy states that it plans to "support continued widespread innovation in software by resisting the wider application of patents in this area."

"It is very disappointing that Diana Wallis pushed the ALDE group to support extremist patentability, because this is directly against Lib Dem party policy and she has been informed of [this] several times," said Chan. "There is no point in voting Lib Dem in European elections, if the elected MEPs feel they can blatently disregard policy when it suits them, and the party is powerless to rein them in," Chan added.

Debian developer Wookey was also unhappy at the Liberal Democrat's apparent change in policy.

"FFII UK will be writing to UK Conservative and Liberal MEPs to ask why the letters they send to constituents say they are against software patents yet they vote for them in committees and parliament," said Wookey.

ALDE's action is particularly frustrating for anti-patent campaigners as many of the amendments were rejected by a majority of only one vote.

Diana Wallis was unable to comment on the issue and a spokesperson for her office advised ZDNet UK to speak to Toine Manders, the spokesperson for ALDE.

Ottilia von Chrismar, the assistant to Toine Manders, denied that the liberals had changed their view on patents. She claimed that the amendments that ALDE voted against were "too vague" and would have created legal uncertainty.

In a statement defending their view on patents, ALDE said that its actions would help Europe to maintain competitiveness.

"I am convinced that with the vote in the Legal Affairs committee this week we have supported a line defending innovation with legal certainty that complements the efforts to attain the Lisbon goals of raising Europe's competitiveness, particularly with respect to the United States and China", said Manders in the statement.

Manders also claimed the directive is important to SMEs as well as large corporations.

"The directive has been portrayed as benefiting only major industrial conglomerates at the expense of the small software developer, but this is simply not true. A recent study by the Business Software Alliance indicates that SMEs account for 20% of all CII (Computer Implemented Inventions) patents granted since 1998 (and 2/3 in 2004) and 81% of them rely on patent protection for their businesses," concluded Manders

However, the study cited by Manders actually found that only 2,000 SMEs in Europe had been issued a patent, of which 81 percent hold only one patent. This is only a tiny proportion of the eleven million SMEs that exist in Europe, according to UEAPME, an organisation that represents the interests of these SMEs at EU level. The figure of two thirds of patents being granted to SMEs in 2004 is also incorrect -- in 2004 around 20 percent of patents were issued to SMEs, according to the study.

Von Chrismar said she was not aware that the figures quoted were incorrect.

UEAPME was critical of JURI for voting against many of Rocard's amendments.

"The failure to clearly remove software from the scope of the directive is a setback for small businesses throughout Europe. UEAPME is now calling on the European Parliament to reverse yesterday’s decision at plenary session next month and send a strong message that an EU software patent is not an option," said Hans-Werner Müller, the secretary general of UEAPME.