A group of 61 members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, has initiated a plan to scrap the European Unions current legislative process around IT patents, citing changes caused by recent European elections, EU expansion and growing concerns around software patents.
The move comes just as IBM has said it will donate 500 patents for free use by open-source software developers, in an attempt to defuse the debate around software patents. In Europe, IBM is a major supporter of new patenting rules that critics argue would open the floodgates to software patents, critics pointed out.
The focus of the software patents debate in Europe is the proposed “Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions,” which critics say is just vague enough to effectively legitimize patents on software. Companies such as Red Hat Inc. and MySQL AB say that such patents, already common in the United States, are of more use to large corporations with patent stockpiles than to developers seeking to protect genuine innovations.
European law prohibits software patents, but tens of thousands have been granted in Europe nonetheless, some industry observers say. The danger, according to those opposing software patents, is that changes to European patent law could allow companies to enforce those patents and obtain many more. Last month, Poland dramatically intervened to delay the EU Council from adopting the proposed directive, creating an opportunity to reopen the debate.
That is what MEPs are now trying to do. Mondays motion was put forward by 61 MEPs from 13 countries and four political groups, led by former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek. It cites as its main concern the fact that “patent-related risks increasingly have implications for the decisions taken by public administrations and private sector organisations with regards to (IT) infrastructures.”
Last year, the city of Munich, which is in the midst of a highly publicized transition from Windows desktops to Linux, called an emergency halt to the plans while it reviewed the implications of changes to EU patent law. The city decided to push ahead with the project, but voiced its concern that indemnification from intellectual property litigation by software suppliers would bar smaller providers from the bidding process.
In August, Open Source Risk Management, a provider of open-source consulting and risk mitigation insurance, said it had found there are 283 issued, but not yet court-validated, software patents that could conceivably be used in patent claims against Linux.
The MEPs statement—the full text of which is available on the Web site of lobbying group the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure—also said a restart was justified by new European elections and changes to the nature of IT since the earlier political agreement.
Florian Mueller, spokesman for the NoSoftwarePatents.com campaign, said there is a realistic chance that the call for a restart to the process could succeed. “The political will in Europe to seriously restrict the scope of patentability is stronger than ever,” he said in an e-mail interview. “A fresh start will allow everyone to save face.”
The motion needs a majority in either the legal affairs committee or in a plenary session of the European Parliament to succeed. A vote could take place in the next major Parliament plenary session during the week of Feb. 21, Mueller said.
Supporters of the current draft, such as the European IT and Communications Industry Association, have said they dont expect MEPs will get the majorities needed to restart the process. The EICTA criticized the recent delays to the legislative process, saying they will only extend the current uncertainties around European IT patents.