Software patent battle set to flare up again

Campaigners and industry body swap arguments and strong words as Europe gears up for another tussle over software patents
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor
With the European Parliament poised to begin deliberating on software patents again, organisations on both sides of the argument are continuing to push their case.

EICTA, the European Information and Communication Technology Association, wrote to the Parliament's legal committee this week calling for the introduction of software patents. EICTA argued this would protect the investment made by European companies in research and development (R&D), protect jobs and encourage the sharing of information between firms.

"Europe is a prominent player in software-enabled inventions in many areas such as healthcare, telecommunications, mobile phones, cars, aviation and consumer electronics. Europe needs patents to maintain and strengthen its leadership," wrote EICTA.

However, EICTA's position is firmly challenged by some of those who oppose the introduction of software patents, such as The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.

"The EICTA is repeating the same dubious and inaccurate claims that have been heard for so long," said Rufus Pollock, the FFII's UK spokesman.

"These latest comments smack of desperation coming as they do at a time when there have been extremely positive signs that both the EU Parliament and national legislatures are aware of the dangers that unrestricted software patents pose to innovation," Pollock added.

Europe's various legislative bodies have very different views on whether software patenting should be permitted. The European Council of Ministers wants to bring it in, as part of its measures to harmonise patent law across Europe, but the European Parliament has fought this move.

In September 2003 the European Parliament tried to water down the Council's Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions by adding amendments to it which would restrict wide-spread software patenting.

This move was rejected by the Council in May this year, and the Parliament is expected begin its work again in November. As the Parliament has appointed former French prime minister Michel Rocard -- who has described himself as a 'supporter of free software' -- to lead its response to the Council, there is speculation that it could take a hard line.

EICTA, which represents 50 multinational companies and 32 industry associations, warned the Parliament in its letter that if it wasn't possible to license patents on software-enabled inventions then Europe would lose thousands of jobs.

"Europe would become a haven for plagiarism. European industry, stripped of patent protection in its home market, would lose considerable market share to those who do not invest in R&D and simply copy," said EICTA.

Unsurprisingly, the FFII has a different take, arguing that software patents actually threaten innovation.

"Without patents Europe would be a haven not for plagiarism but for innovation at its most dynamic," Pollock claimed.

"Moreover, as all informed observers know, promoting innovation is a matter of striking a correct balance between protection and monopoly. Innovation and ideas must be 'adequately rewarded' and this is precisely what software patents do not do," Pollock added.

The FFII is currently gathering testimony from British businesses and developers on software patents, which it plans to pass on to the UK government.

Campaigning is also taking place around Europe, with the four main German political parties all backing a move to demand changes to the European Council's position.

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