Software patent protest to block Web sites

Several hundred Web sites are to remove their front pages in protest against a European software patents directive, due for a final vote next week

More than 600 Web sites are to take part in an online protest against a proposed European law on software patents, timed to coincide with a real-life protest in Brussels on Wednesday.

Those rallying against the proposal -- including some of Europe's most prominent scientists and software businesses -- believe its current draft would open the door to the patenting of software and business processes, effectively shutting out software competition from small and medium-sized developers.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which is organising the online protest, is urging Web sites to temporarily replace their front pages with a note of protest. Some sites are also redirecting users to a petition and call for action against the proposed directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions, which will be submitted to the European Parliament for approval on 1 September.

The call for action has already amassed more than 7,000 names since earlier this year, including several MEPs and developers such as Opera Software, while the more general petition has accumulated more than 170,000 names.

Participating sites include a number of open-source organisations, such as Linux desktop software project KDE and Savannah, a hosting site for GNU software projects.

"Leaders of the scientific communities and software business world took the directive proposal apart and condemned it in every respect. Yet in June the EP Legal Affairs Commission endorsed this proposal with further amendments that make it even worse," said Benjamin Henrion, one of the protest organisers, in a statement. "More and more people are now seeing this very clearly."

The FFII and software-oriented groups such as Eurolinux are also organising a rally to be held beside the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, running from noon to 2 p.m. The participants will be carrying banners with slogans such as "software patents kill efficient software development" and, more catchily, "innovation not litigation".

They are expected to be joined by a group of interested mimes, which also participated in a May demonstration that attracted 200 participants. The protest will be followed by briefings in the parliament building.

Ongoing controversy
A June vote on the controversial proposal was put back amid criticism by MEPs that the legislation would institute a US-style patent regime that would be detrimental to European small businesses and open-source software developers.

The proposed software-patenting legislation is the result of a European Commission effort to clarify patenting rules as they apply to "computer-implemented inventions", a term that can be taken to include software. The patent offices of different EU member states currently have different criteria for accepting the validity of software-related patents, a situation which the Commission's proposal aims to remedy.

However, opponents of the suggested legislation charge that the ambiguity of the current draft would effectively allow most software to be patented, a situation which currently exists in the US, and which critics have compared to allowing a monopoly on the ideas in novels.

Writing in The Guardian in June, Arlene McCarthy, the British Labour MEP who is guiding the software patents proposal through Parliament, argued that the legislation would "provide legal certainty for European software inventors" and protect the investments of small European software companies.

"It is time some of the 'computer rights campaigners' got real," she wrote. "Patents for software inventions will not go away. It is infinitely better for the EU to harmonise laws across the EU with a view to limiting patentability, than to continue with the mess of national courts and European Patent Office (EPO) systems, and the drift towards US patent models."

For more information about this issue, click here for the ZDNet UK Insight feature, "Patent Impending".