EU takes axe to software patents directive

Substantial alterations

channel

The European parliament has renewed it opposition to the software patents directive, by making substantial alterations to the draft.

The Financial Times says it has seen a copy of the amended directive, penned by the bill's rapporteur, Michel Rocard. Under the terms of Rocard's draft, software would only be patentable if it controlled a physical process, or a controllable force of nature. Patents would not be allowed for software that handles "the treatment, the manipulation, the representation and the presentation of information".

It would not be surprising for the European parliament to have made this move: its opposition to the terms proposed by the European commission has been long standing, and vociferous.

Back in September 2003, MEPs moved to significantly restrict the scope of the directive. Almost all of those changes were thrown out by the Council of Ministers, provoking accusations of anti-democratic behaviour from opponents of the bill.

Since then, new member states have brought fresh opposition to the text, even at council level, with Poland voting the bill down several times before the text was finally accepted and sent back to parliament for a second reading.

In normal circumstances, parliament would be restricted to introducing changes it proposed during the first reading. However, because the readings have crossed two presidencies, this requirement has been waived.

Unsurprisingly, the representatives of big business are not happy. Mark MacGann, president of Eicta told the FT: "This proposal would eliminate much of the patent protection accessible today by the industry in Europe. It goes against the fundamentals of existing patent law in Europe. Patents based on data processing would no longer be enforceable."

But Green MEP Eva Lichtenberger told the paper: "We want to be very clear in excluding many applications [from patent protection]. We must be aware that small and medium-sized companies in particular are hurt by patents."

To pass these changes at the plenary vote in July, Parliament must accept them by an absolute majority. Anti-patent campaigners are concerned that this will make it difficult for the amendments to move forward, but Joe McNamee, EU policy director at the Political Intelligence consultancy, told us last month that it can, and does happen.

"The point here is that the Parliament could simply adopt the amendments that it knows the Council won't accept and just stick with them - meaning that the Directive will ultimately fall. The Parliament already said that the Directive should be redrafted, so that would be the logical thing for them to do, unless they've changed their minds," he said. ®

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