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Democracy and the software patenting debate

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Opinion The next session of the European Parliament will be vital for the tech industry, as the directive on computer implemented inventions is due to get its second reading. This Thursday, Europeans will exercise their democratic muscles and vote for those who will sit in the European Parliament, and in turn vote on the fate of the directive.

At 24 per cent in 1999, voter turnout in the UK is lower than any other member state, and has been since 1979. This may be embarassing, but it does mean that if you can motivate yourself to vote, it will count for a lot.

Software patentability is just one of many questions the parliament must deal with in the next sitting and as one MEP told El Reg: "Its not exactly a doorstep issue." Nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting to find out just where all the main parties stand, so that you can make an informed choice when you go to the polls on Thursday.

The directive is highly controversial in its current form, for several reasons. In brief, the wording is such that it allows a very broad interpretation of what is patentable. There are three points that are particularly contentious: interoperability, lack of definition of technical effect and how patents would affect end users.

Broadly speaking, no one except the Labour party is even remotely happy with the current form of the directive. Even the Tories, whose natural position is on the side of big business, have their doubts.

Labour's position is a matter of public record, as Jacqui Smith, MP, sat in the Council of Ministers' meeting on 18 May, and gave Labour's backing to the current form of the directive.

She said: "The Directive does appear to meet the needs of innovators and users of software and computer-implemented inventions; it's obviously important that we keep this area as straightforward as possible. I was reassured to hear the comments of Commissioner Bolkestein making clear that companies who did abuse their position could be dealt with using competition law."

Individual Labour MEP candidates may have a different view, of course, so it is worth getting in touch with those standing for election in your area. More information on that can be found here.

Malcom Harbour, MEP for the Conservative Party explained the Tory position. "We need to find a formulation that clarifies patentability, but my concern is that people think this is entirely new legislation. The problem with the parliamentary amendments was that they introduced new concepts of patentability which would have made the directive even more confusing and unworkable. We need a formulation that will exclude business methods, but will still protect inventors."

He thinks that having a new parliament sitting for the directive's second reading could be a positive thing. "Normally in a second reading, you are very limited in the amendments you can introduce," he says. With new MEPs sitting, he argues, there might be a little more flexibility.

The UK Independence party, riding mainly on anti-Europe feeling, and is gaining support from many traditional Tory voters, is (unsurprisingly) against the directive. MEP candidate Damian Hockney commented: "We believe that software patents are a barrier to competition, freedom of expression and economic development. The party also believes that such changes should not be forced on member states."

The Green party's voting record puts the party firmly against the current form of the directive. After withstanding some heckling from a restless audience at Richard Stallman's presentation in London last fortnight, MEP candidate Dr Shahrar Ali said: "The position of the Green MEPs is very clear. I am not currently a Green MEP, I am a candidate. I'm gravitating towards the position of the MEPs against the current regulatory initiatives. They voted for amendments which would keep those regulations closer to the current situation as contained in the European Patent Convention of 1973."

The Liberal Democrats are very clearly against the directive as it stands. In a statement, Richard Allen MP said that a wide definition of patentability in the field of software development is not in the public interest.

"We believe that an EU Directive in this area may be helpful only if it clearly instructs all member states to implement a narrow definition of patentability in this field. We remain very concerned that the wording of the current draft Directive can be interpreted as allowing a wider definition of patentability than we would wish to see permitted.

However, it says that people need to recognise that the final say is likely to rest with the Council of Ministers. Allen encourages people to lobby UK Ministers: "If we can persuade national governments that the public interest of their citizens requires them to improve the draft Directive then this is most likely to bring about the necessary changes."

That is how the land lies. The rest is up to us. ®

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