EU Parliament Approves Software Patent Restart

A European Union legislative body scraps a proposed IT patenting rule that would have brought, according to critics, "the same broad and ambiguous system that is in place in America."

A European Parliament body has adopted a motion to scrap the European Unions proposed IT patenting legislation, amid growing criticism of the proposal from EU member states. The decision by the EPs Conference of Presidents—the heads of the parliaments political groups—is the last hurdle before the parliament can formally ask the Commission for a restart.

The texts opponents say it would bring the EU into line with U.S. patent practice, allowing broad patentability of software and business processes. As U.S. software companies spend millions defending or attacking intellectual property holdings, European vendors are taking advantage of their easier legal climate for software, especially smaller companies and open-source projects.

The issue has attracted public attention unusual for an EU directive, attracting hundreds of protesters in Brussels on Thursday.

On Feb. 2, the EP legal affairs committee, JURI, voted nearly unanimously to call for the European Commission, the EUs executive arm, to restart the legislative process around IT patenting. On Thursday morning the Conference of Presidents adopted JURIs motion, which calls for a new first reading of the proposed directive.

In the meantime, the EU Council, the third branch of EU government, is still seeking to adopt the controversial text it agreed on in May. This would send the proposal in its current form back to the EP for a second reading, where it would be difficult for MEPs (members of European Parliament) to make changes.

The Commission may grant the EPs request, or it may deny it and allow the proposal to go to a second reading, or it may withdraw the proposal entirely. If the proposal is withdrawn, the Commission cant introduce another initiative on the same subject for two years. The national parliaments of Spain and the Netherlands last week adopted motions in support of a restart, and Germany is expected to adopt a similar resolution later on Thursday.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about Polands stand against the patent proposal.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which coordinates protest efforts against the proposal, said a restart is currently the best that can be hoped for. While it would be a positive move to scrap the current text, whats really needed is a better proposal, and that will be difficult to achieve, said FFII president Hartmut Pilch. "This is still an uphill battle," he told "We need to organize ourselves in a more sustainable fashion."

He said the public should take note of a new report, prepared on behalf of the EPs Directorate General for Economic and Scientific Policy, which confirms the FFIIs arguments against the proposal. The study finds that the proposal would create "the same broad and ambiguous system that is in place in America," and says "most business methods granted in America would also be patentable at (the European Patent Office)." The full report and a summary (PDFs) are available on the FFIIs Web site.

Organizations such as the FFII argue that allowing software patents in Europe would harm smaller companies, which dont have the financial muscle to cope with all-out patent warfare, and would create a more hostile environment for Europes open-source software industry. Large companies, such as the members of the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association, say the current proposal is needed to protect their research investments, and is restrictive enough as it is.

Hundreds of protesters organized by the FFII demonstrated in Brussels on Thursday morning and later delivered open letters addressed to the Commission and the Council, calling for a new first reading. "This path has now come to a dead end. It is time for a fresh start," read the letter addressed to Commissioner Charlie McCreevy.

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