European Parliament delays software patent vote

The vote on a highly controversial proposed European Union law on software patents has once again been postponed, a parliament...

The vote on a highly controversial proposed European Union law on software patents has again been postponed, a parliament official said.

A presentation of the draft legislation on the "patentability of computer-implemented inventions" by European Parliament member Arlene McCarthy has been pushed back until the next plenary meeting of the European Parliament during the week of 22 September, according to a spokesman in the UK office of the European Parliament.

The date and time for the presentation have yet to be arranged and no specific reason was given for the delay, said McCarthy's parliamentary assistant, Emma Bandey. "It is not unusual for debates to be rescheduled," she added.

Efforts to standardise patents across Europe for computer-implemented inventions, which include software, have provoked protest from two polarised camps.

Open-source and free software groups contend that copyright laws are enough to protect business innovations and want patents to be outlawed, while large businesses, particularly those which already own libraries of patents, are calling on the EU to establish US-style patent laws allowing so-called business methods to be patented.

The patents directive has already made its way through the European Parliament and the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market (JURI), which appointed McCarthy as "rapporteur", the person responsible for guiding the proposal through the European Parliament.

McCarthy issued her report in June, but the debate on the directive was postponed until this month partly because of the controversy surrounding the dossier.

Last week a group of economists sent an open letter to the European Parliament, characterising the draft proposal as damaging to technological innovation and Europe's software industry. That was followed by online and in-person protests organised by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), urging the EU to abandon the directive in its present form.

About 500 people, including some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), took part in a rally in Brussels while more than 600 websites participated in the online protest, said Benjamin Henrion,  one of the protest organisers.

"We had the impression that the vote was postponed partly because of our action and the letter from the group (of 12 economists)," he said.

Henrion hailed the delay as a chance to educate parliamentarians on the complex technical issues surrounding patenting software.

"Three more weeks to explain software patents is a good thing for us. Our polls show that when politicians understand the technical issues and implications of software patent laws like those in the US, they largely support our stance," he said.

But other MEPs believe the directive already has comprehensive safeguards against the possibility of large companies patenting as many technologies as possible in an effort to squeeze out competition from small and medium-sized businesses.

In a letter published on the website of The Financial Times, Malcolm Harbour MEP and Joachim Wuermeling MEP wrote that they and "our centre-right colleagues from across the European Union wholeheartedly support the pragmatic and measured approach" of the current directive.

The MEPs conceded that "the EU must not go down the road taken by the US in allowing patents for general software and business methods," but wrote: "inconsistencies in the granting of software patents across EU patent offices are already threatening to undermine the EU's desired position. The new directive reverses this undesirable trend and protects Europe's innovative software industry."

Laura Rohde writes for IDG News Service

Read more on IT legislation and regulation