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Software patents face-off delayed until spring

The Council of the European Union has put off a critical vote on software patents, as IT giants step up pressure to make changes

Voting on a controversial European Union software patents proposal has been delayed until April, amid intensified lobbying against the proposal by multinational tech companies and European mobile phone makers.

The Council of the European Union's Competitiveness Council had been scheduled to vote on the draft Directive on Computer Implemented Inventions last week, but it was left off the agenda amid calls for further consultations. The delay means the current Italian presidency of the EU will not face the issue, which will be carried over to the Irish presidency beginning next month.

The French government had said it would call for a delay in order to hold additional consultations, according to a spokesman, citing the "difference in approach" to the directive of the Commission and the European Parliament. The Commission is the EU's executive arm, while the European Parliament and the Council of the EU form the legislative branch. The Council's agenda is set by the EU presidency.

The directive has been developed to harmonise Europe's patent system based on best practices, but critics -- including software developers, economists, computer scientists and small businesses -- argued the version developed by the parliament's judicial affairs committee (JURI) was fatally flawed. Its wording was vague enough to effectively legitimise software patents, which would lead to patent warfare dominated by large corporations, as is the situation in the US' software industry, critics said. They were persuasive enough to convince MEPs to introduce a number of important amendments before approving the directive in September.

In November, the chief executives of Alcatel, Ericsson, Nokia, Philips and Siemens signed a letter to the European Commission demanding that the amendments be removed, arguing they removed "effective patent protection for much --­ and in the case of telecommunications and consumer electronics, probably most -- of our R&D investment."

The amendments "would change the legal climate in Europe so suddenly, dramatically and unexpectedly, that they already send a message to the rest of the world that one of the legal cornerstones necessary for attaining a viable European Information Society is unstable, unpredictable, and unreliable," the letter said.

The letter's arguments were later echoed in a statement from the European Information, Communications and Consumer Electronics Technology Industry Association (EICTIA), a group backed by the European electronics giants and multinational IT companies such as Microsoft, Intel, HP and IBM.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), a lobbying group that helped push the amendments through, said the companies' arguments had already been disproved by economists. The only growth that would be encouraged by the original proposal, advocated by the EICTIA, would be in companies' patent departments, FFII argued.

"[The proposal] achieved... unnamed aims such as unlimited patentability of 'computer-implemented business methods' and absolute priority of such patents over any interoperability considerations," the FFII said in a statement. Such changes would "be a brake on innovation even at big telecommunications and electronics companies," the group said.

The Commission has said it may withdraw the directive from consideration because of the amendments.

The Competitiveness Council must vote on the directive before sending it back to the European Parliament for a second reading.