Key Votes on Tap in Patent Debate

Open-source advocates are planning to stage protests in Brussels the day of two key votes that could lead the European Commission to scrap its current IT patenting proposal.

Open-source advocates and representatives of small and medium-sized businesses are planning to stage protests in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, amid two key votes that could lead the European Commission to scrap its current IT patenting proposal.

Also on Thursday, the EU Council had planned to adopt a disputed version of the draft IT patenting directive—known as the Directive on the Patenting of Computer-Implemented Inventions—but delayed the action in the face of rising opposition to the text. The Council wants to adopt a text from May 2004 as its Common Position and send it back to the European Parliament for a second reading, but the EPs legal affairs committee has asked for the May 2004 text to be thrown out. The European Commission, the EU Council and the EP are the three branches of the European Union government, and new directives must be agreed upon by all three.

On Thursday morning, a group of EP chairpersons is scheduled to decide whether to approve the legal affairs committees request for a restart to the legislative process—the group is expected to approve the request. That evening the German parliament, the Bundestag, is expected to vote nearly unanimously on an all-group motion that demands substantial modifications to the May 2004 proposal. The Netherlands and Spain have already made similar moves.

In what would have been the third vote on the subject on the same day, the EU Council planned to adopt the May 2004 text as its Common Position and send it back to the EP, in spite of mounting opposition that has caused the adoption to be delayed several times since November. But on Friday a spokesman for Commissioner Charlie McCreevy said the adoption will be delayed once again, adding that McCreevy is dissatisfied with this outcome. No specific reasons were given for the fresh delay.

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The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure has organized protests in Brussels on Thursday morning, followed by a press conference in the afternoon. "Over and over again, [the Council and the Commission] continue to promote software patents with a complete neglect of the opposing voices from a large majority in the EU parliament. Enough is enough," said FFII spokesman Dieter Van Uytvanck, in a statement.

Critics of the May 2004 proposal say it is vague enough to allow U.S.-style software patenting, which they say would harm smaller businesses that lack the legal muscle of big enterprises. Software patents would also derail open-source software, critics say. Bigger businesses say the May 2004 proposal is strict enough to block patents on pure software, while protecting their other investments in IT research and development.

Mark MacGann, director general of the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association, has criticized the delays in adopting the Common Position, saying they extend companies legal uncertainty and threaten the Lisbon Agenda for improving Europes IT competitiveness.

While the national parliaments of member states have no direct impact on voting by the branches of the EU government, in recent days several member state governments have expressed criticism of the May 2004 draft. On Thursday night the Netherlands Tweede Kamer passed a resolution calling on the Dutch government to oppose the adoption of the proposal, giving the Commission time to consider the EPs request for a restart. Earlier in the week Spains Senado passed a similar resolution.

"The biggest value that we get out of those resolutions by national parliaments is that they add weight and credibility to our own concerns about software patents and the Councils proposal," said Florian Mueller, head of the campaign.

Thursdays vote is the last formality before the EP can ask the Commission for a restart. The Commission can then accept the request, turn it down or withdraw the initiative entirely. If the Commission turns down the request, the EP must begin a second reading on the proposal in spite of its objections.

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