Campaigners hoping to keep software patents out of the European Union were dealt a serious blow on Monday, when the European Parliaments legal affairs committee threw out key amendments to a proposed IT patenting law.
The committee, known as JURI, had been considering a number of amendments to the proposed directive on the patenting of computer-implemented inventions, a controversial plan to codify EU technology patenting practices. Those opposing patents on software—including most small businesses, open-source advocates, and many economists and computer scientists—have long warned that the directive would pave the way for patents on pure software.
Many of the tabled amendments were designed to impose strict limitations that would lock out software patents. A few with symbolic anti-patent value were passed, but JURI MEPs (Members of European Parliament) rejected most of them, and passed some amendments broadening the scope of the directive. The votes were close, with many decided by a single vote.
"This was unexpected," said Jonas Maebe of the FFII (Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure), which opposes software patents. "We didnt think we would win everything, but we didnt think it would be this bad. Formally nothing is lost, but of course this is a pretty serious signal that the proponents of software patents are quite strong in the Parliament." The FFII has published a list of the adopted amendments here.
The result is a win for large companies such as Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., which support the directive. Eicta, a technology group counting these companies among its members, said it was satisfied with the vote.
The BSA (Business Software Alliance), on the other hand, expressed concern that some of the amendments attempted to place limits on patentability. "The vote sends mixed signals about Europes commitment to growth and innovation," said Francisco Mingorance, director of policy for BSA Europe, in a statement.
At stake is whether the EU will bring in more permissive rules on software patents, bringing it into line with patent practices in the United States and Japan. Currently, patents on pure software and business processes are not enforceable, making it impossible for large companies to bring their patent arsenals into play in the region.
The system is seen as creating competitive advantages for the EUs open-source economy, and for EU-based IT companies, which dont have to worry about the overhead associated with patents on software. Open-source projects are considered especially vulnerable to software patents, and open-source leaders such as Linus Torvalds have spoken out against the current directive.
The proposal faced strong opposition in its first round in the European Parliament, called a first reading, and parliamentarians modified the text substantially to ensure software patents were locked out. The EU Council later threw out most of the parliaments changes, and finally formally endorsed its own version of the text in March, despite controversy over whether its text had sufficient support.
Mondays vote was a dramatic illustration of how much has changed in the European Parliament since its first vote, when MEPs were strongly influenced by anti-patent campaigners. By all accounts, the lobbying effort by technology industry associations ahead of the second reading has been intense.
"Eicta said after the first reading that it had made a mistake in underestimating the opponents of software patents, and that it wouldnt happen again. They kept their word," said Maebe. "The European Parliament is filled with lobbyists for Microsoft, Eicta, CompTIA [Computing Technology Industry Association] and so on. There are 30 to 40 lobbyists permanently roaming the halls."
The JURI vote may have been the last realistic chance for anti-patent campaigners to affect the directives final form. The full parliament will vote on the directive and its amendments in early July, but it is likely to follow JURIs lead. Amendments are more difficult for a plenary session of the parliament to pass in a second reading because stricter voting rules apply.
Unless the parliament introduces some of the more substantial amendments rejected by JURI, the European Commission is likely to give its approval, after which the directive will become EU law. The directive must then be implemented in the national laws of all EU member states, a process in which there may be some room to maneuver.
Maebe said it would be possible to lobby legislators at a national level. In the meantime, the FFII is urging Europeans to express their concerns to their MEPs ahead of the parliamentary vote next month.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis about productivity and business solutions.