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 also 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 software patents.
The proposal, called the "directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions," faced strong opposition in its first round in the EP, 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 EPs changes, and finally formally endorsed its version of the text in March, despite controversy over whether its text had sufficient support.
Campaigners against software patents now hope that the EP will be able to muster enough votes to push through its changes again, in the face of the higher voting requirements of a second reading. But Thursdays debate showed that the EPs legal affairs committee, JURI, is far from unified in its views.
Among those opposing any amendments was Irish MEP Brian Crowley, who argued that the current text simply keeps the status quo and that no new patents would be allowed under the directive. In any case, Crowley said, patents protect smaller businesses as much as larger ones.
Finnish MEP Piia-Noora Kauppi, on the other hand, argued that the Councils text is unacceptable as it is and criticized those who exaggerated the negative effects of the EPs original amendments. While the EP might have gone too far with a few of its first-reading amendments, changes must be made, Kauppi said. Recordings and transcripts of much of the debate has been made available online by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, the main European group coordinating opposition to software patents.
JURIs rapporteur, Michel Rocard, who is responsible for directing the second-reading process, is strongly in favor of altering the text to lock software patents out. In a working document published ahead of the debate, his comments echoed the anti-software patent arguments of figures in the open-source community, like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.
"Software is the combination of an original work of one or more algorithms, that is to say, a set of mathematical formulae. As Albert Einstein has said, a mathematical formula is not patentable. It is by nature an idea, like a book, a set of words, or a chord in music," he wrote.
FFII board member Jonas Maebe said it is difficult to judge from the debate which way JURI will swing when it votes on the issue in late June. "Quite probably it will be similar to the first reading, with the large groups all split," he said in an interview. "Which side will come out the stronger is anyones guess."
He said industry organizations such as EICTA, which supports the current version of the text, are aggressively lobbying MEPs not to make any changes. "There is really an incredible amount of lobbying going on, and most MEPs dont know who to believe anymore," Maebe said. "Everyone is claiming to represent SMEs [small and midsize enterprises], and everyone is saying that if their side fails it will kill innovation." He said the FFII wants the parliament to either pass amendments similar to those that came out of the first reading or to kill the directive.
In a second reading, it is more difficult for the parliament to make changes—they must be approved by an absolute majority of MEPs, regardless of abstentions or absences. A strict time limit is also in force.
If the EP makes amendments of the kind the FFII wants, the EU Council is likely to throw them out again. However, passing such amendments will give the EP more negotiating power in a later phase of the legislative process called conciliation.
JURIs vote comes on June 20, followed by an early July vote by the entire European Parliament. The FFII is planning a conference in early June to drum up support from MEPs.