The Parliament voted 648 to 14 with 18 abstentions to reject the directive, which would have become EU law if approved in its current form. The European Commission, which originated the proposal, said it respected the Parliaments decision and said it would stand by its earlier promise not to put forward another proposal on the issue.
The directive was intended to harmonize EU member states laws on the patentability of IT-related inventions, but the real focus of interest was software. As originally drafted, the law would have put a relatively permissive system into place, which critics said would legitimize software and business-practice patents, bringing the EU into line with patent practices in the United States and Japan. Currently, patents on pure software and business processes are not enforceable in the EU, 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 rejection means that the four-year legislative process around the directive concludes with no result, and the existing, inconsistent system will remain in place. In recent days, however, the camps opposing and supporting the directive have both come to see a rejection as the best option.
"Although we would have welcomed a harmonisation of laws throughout Europe, at least the intellectual property protection that innovators had yesterday will remain the same tomorrow—and that is critical for European competitiveness," said Francisco Mingorance, Business Software Alliance Europes director of public policy, in a statement.
EICTA, an industry group with 10,000 members including Nokia and Alcatel, said it supported the decision to reject the directive in the face of numerous amendments that might have added fresh restrictions. EICTA had heavily backed the directive, and even formed a pro-directive campaign group called Patents4Innovation.
Florian Mueller, a software developer and one of the most outspoken campaigners against the directive, said the rejection was a relief. "What Im most angry about is the fact that the Commission and most country governments lied to the people of Europe about the purpose of this directive," he told Ziff Davis Internet. "For me personally, it [will] be really nice to wake up without having to worry about the status of this legislative process."
Campaigners noted that the Parliament called in February for the legislative process to be restarted, a request rejected by the Commission. The Commission was perceived by many MEPs (Members of European Parliament) to be unwilling to engage in any kind of dialogue with the Parliament—the only of the three major EU legislative bodies that is democratically elected—and this contributed to Parliaments decision on Wednesday, according to observers.
The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, the main coordinator of European opposition to software patents, said the result was a victory for democracy over the "free ice-cream, boatloads of hired lobbyists and outsourcing threats" wielded by large IT businesses. The directive has been supported by large companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, SAP and Siemens.
The "Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions" became increasingly divisive as it progressed through the EUs complex lawmaking process. It first attracted widespread interest when it passed through the European Parliaments first reading. Grassroots lobbying by SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses), economists, computer scientists, software developers and open-source advocates led the Parliament to place substantial restrictions on the bill, ensuring software patents would be locked out. The EU Council later threw out most of the EPs changes, and finally formally endorsed its own version of the text in March, despite controversy over whether its text had sufficient support.
The directive then returned to the European Parliament for a second reading, but under heavy pressure from lobbyists the legal affairs committee failed to find backing for amendments similar to those passed in the first reading. For those opposed to software patents, this raised the prospect that the directive could pass without modifications, which inclined them to reject the directive.
The big-business interests supporting the directive also saw the situation as too explosive, due to the possibility that Parliament could modify the text at the last moment. The Liberal groups legal affairs spokesman Toine Manders, a supporter of looser patent restrictions, called the situation a potential "chaos." "Because of the large number of amendments, the directive could shoot in all kinds of directions like a firecracker, and we want to prevent this," he said in Parliament on Tuesday.
Support had been growing for the 21 amendments backed by anti-patent campaigners, according to the FFII. "Big business only had the alternative of rejection or our 21 amendments winning, so they chose rejection, and it wouldnt have been reasonable for us to oppose that," Hartmut Pilch of the FFIIs Munich branch told eWEEK.com.
Those 21 amendments would form a solid basis for any future legislation on the issue, Pilch said. The FFII said it is confident that opposition to software patents is now so well-entrenched that any future attempts at legislation would be unlikely to succeed.