FSFs Stallman Says New EU Patent Initiative on Horizon

The European Union will make another attempt to impose software patents, according to the founder of the Free Software Foundation.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Is a new directive to take up the controversial issue of patents in the European Union in the cards?

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes so. He told eWEEK in an interview here at the First International Conference on GPLv3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that "we have just found out that the European Union is going to make another attempt to impose software patents. There is a proposed directive once again for community patents," he said.

"In other words, that would retroactively authorize the European Patent Offices flagrant disregard of the treaty that set it up, and that would mean authorizing software patents. So now we get into the situation where there is not much democracy in the European Union. We saw how hard it is for the European Parliament to actually override anything; they just rejected the directive and maybe that will be the best thing to do this time," he said.

The FSF would vigorously oppose any new directive, Stallman said, but he did not give further details on where this information had come from, adding that it was evident in the battle over the previous directive that companies could bully the governments of European states with threats to move money, jobs and businesses elsewhere.

Last July, the European Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the European Unions controversial IT patenting proposal that had been intended to standardize the EU member states laws on the patentability of IT-related inventions, especially software.

Ciaran ORiordan, the Brussels representative of the Free Software Foundation Europe, appeared surprised by Stallmans assertion that another patent directive was in the cards, saying "if that is so, it is going to be a busy year for me."

But Stallmans concerns appear to be correct, as European Union Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services Charlie McGreevy has launched an initiative to establish a consistent European patent system. The commission this week asked for public input into how future action in patent policy to create an EU-wide patent system could include "stakeholders needs."

In a Web posting, the Directorate General for Internal Market and Services said it was consulting stakeholders on their needs in relation to the legal framework and possible actions in the field of industrial property.

"Views are sought on the patent system in Europe, and what changes if any are needed to improve innovation and competitiveness, growth and employment in the knowledge-based economy. Stakeholders are invited to submit their contributions by 31 March 2006," the posting said.

While the previous directive has been rejected, the European Patent Office is still granting patents, but the courts are rejecting these, ORiordan said.

"In general, software developers in Europe are safe from patent litigation, but not the cost of legal advice and defending themselves in the courts. We are hoping for a legislative change in the EU, but we are not hopeful that will happen anytime soon," he said.

The provisions in the draft discussion GPL 3.0 document were helpful and would help in this regard, he said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead more here about what the draft GPL 3.0 document brings to the table.

In an often contentious panel discussion here on Tuesday about changes and details in the first discussion document, Stallman battled a number of lawyers on a range of legal issues ands minutia, often appearing quite annoyed at the questioning.

He also clarified that the move in GPL 3.0 to protect downstream users if they unknowingly relied on a patent was not a placeholder. "This is the best we could come up with and may be the best we can get. This is not a placeholder. This is the text we plan to go with unless someone comes up with something better," he said.

On Monday, at the release of the first draft discussion of GPL 3.0, Eben Moglen, the general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, said an issue the community now needs to face head-on is how to prevent people from being deliberately endangered by risks that others with patents do not face.

"In short, we need to face the issue of cross-licensing. The basic principle is that parties should act with recognition of the dangers that patents impose and demand that they act to constrain the harm that patents are doing to that community at large," he said.

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