Irish open-source advocates are doing their part to combat software patents in the European Union with a briefing document distributed just in time to give Irelands 16 Members of European Parliament some light reading material over St. Patricks Day.
The document, timed to reach MEPs on Wednesday, was created in response to members own queries about the subject, said Barry ODonovan, an open-source activist who helped draft the brief. It follows an e-mail-writing campaign by Irish academics and developers that began early last week, following the EU Councils official endorsement of the EUs controversial draft directive on software-related patents.
Input from constituents was important because the Councils decision sends the directive back to the European Parliament. “Some of our MEPs are newly elected and would need to be informed about this issue and its history,” ODonovan said. The timing with St. Patricks Day was pure coincidence, he said.
The directive is designed to harmonize software-related patent law across the EU, but critics say the current text would have the effect of making pure-software patents enforceable in Europe. This could have a serious impact on smaller software businesses and on European contributions to open-source projects, critics say.
EU software patents would be an advantage to some U.S. multinationals, which would be able to enforce the same software patents in Europe that they own in the United States. They could also remove a competitive advantage for European software companies; currently these companies dont have to worry about the patent litigation that has become a fact of life in the United States.
The current legislative process has turned into a battle pitting the elected European Parliament against the European Commission and the EU Council, which are made up of appointees. The draft directive is now in second reading at the European Parliament, where MEPs have three months to substantially alter or reject it.
Last week ODonovan created a form on KDE.ie to make it easy for constituents to contact Irish MEPs, informing those in the Irish ICT industry and those associated with the University College Dublins computer science department. The result was nearly 400 e-mails, or about 25 per MEP on average, ODonovan said. “This prompted a request from a number of MEPs for more information and how the directive might affect Irish industry and research,” he said.
The document was sent out by KDE Ireland, the Irish Linux Users Group and the Irish Free Software Organisation on behalf of their members. The paper and responses from MEPs are available on KDE Irelands Web site.
Ireland already plays an important role in the process around the directive, since the Commissioner handling the matter—Charlie McCreevy—is Irelands former Minister of Finance. McCreevy strongly backs the current text, which is “unfortunate,” ODonovan said. “It has certainly given a bad name to the Irish government and its politicians across the free and open-source software community,” he said.
The document includes an overview of how software patents affect the IT industry, including extracts from an October 2003 “Report on Innovation” from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The report cited participants views that software patents are “impairing follow-on incentives, increasing entry barriers, creating uncertainty that harms incentives to invest in innovation, and producing patent thickets.” An open letter from 14 European economists, also included in the document, expresses a similar view.
The documents list of “Ten Reasons Why Software Ideas Must Remain Free From Patentability” notes that because software is abstract, searches for software patents would be hit-and-miss, and “reliably avoiding patent infringement would be impossible.” Software patents would keep Europes software industry subject to foreign industry leaders, the list says.
The European Patent Office has already granted thousands of software patents, but these are currently unenforceable because of conflicts in the EUs patent system. Part 6 of the briefing document illustrates how these already-granted patents would grant patent holders control over common e-commerce site features such as the sale of goods and services over the Internet, the use of an electronic shopping cart, and the use of a smaller image as a preview.
Supporters of the current directive, including the European Commission, the EU Council and some multinationals, argue the directive is restrictive enough to block U.S.-style software patents.
The split in the EU government has been duplicated in some member states, with elected politicians opposing the directive while bureaucrats continue to support it.
In February, for instance, Germanys parliament endorsed a motion in support of scrapping the current draft of the directive and starting afresh. That has never been the position of Germanys Ministry of Economics and Labour, however, and the Ministry last week reaffirmed its views in a letter sent to critics.
In the letter, the Ministry argued that the directive would not allow EU software patents, and said concerns about the law are “often based on misunderstandings.” The Ministry asserted that “no one has to be worried about anyones economic development, at least not because of this directive.”
Hartmut Pilch, executive director of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, which opposes software patents, said the German government “has always been a hardcore promoter of this directive,” although the governments stance has little support in the German parliament, the Bundestag.
The reason for the split is simple, according to Florian Mueller, another leading anti-software-patents campaigner. “Directly elected parliamentarians are larger in number, so you cant just influence a very few by lobbying. They get countless letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents worried about software patents,” he said. “Governments also get those letters but the civil servants there just write a form letter. The unelected civil servants dont care about voters.”
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