EU software patent opponents step up lobbying

Opponents of a proposed European law on software patents have overhauled their lobbying efforts in a last-ditch attempt to turn...

Opponents of a proposed European law on software patents have overhauled their lobbying efforts in a last-ditch attempt to turn lawyers' opinions in their favour.

Next Wednesday the Green Party in the European Parliament, which agrees with opponents such as the open-source and free software communities, will host a conference on the draft law, on which voting is scheduled to take place at the next plenary session of the parliament towards the end of this month.

Unlike previous events, the list of speakers at the half-day event come from the academic mainstream and also include consumer representatives.

Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium, is expected to give a virtual address and then participate in an online debate with conference attendees.

Alan Mycroft from Cambridge University will present a petition signed by fellow scientists urging lawmakers to rethink their supportive views about the draft law before they vote.

Luc Soete, Founder of Merit at the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology, will present a letter co-signed by fellow economists urging European Parliamentarians to change their minds.

Jim Murray, head of the Europewide consumer group BEUC, will explain to delegates that the directive as it stands is too unclear to pass as law. "I doubt a few amendments by the European Parliament will fix that," he said.

As a consumer representative, Murray will argue why it is in the interests of European citizens that European Parliamentarians should take more time to understand the complex issues at stake before voting on the text.

The conference will also hear from representatives of local government in Europe who have already opted for open-source structures for their office software needs. Jens Mülhaus, a member of the City Council of Munich, Germany, will outline why his organisation prefers a computer software environment not dominated by a few large patent-owning corporations.

Previous attempts by the open-source and free software communities to steer European lawmakers away from supporting the draft law are widely seen to have failed, according to public affairs and lobbying experts in Brussels.

"Up until now the lobbying effort against this software patent law has been a shambles," said one expert with no direct involvement in the debate, who asked not to be named.

He added, "They have been totally outgunned by the slick lobbying of corporations like IBM and Microsoft. At last the opponents appear to be getting their act together, and now the fight appears to be more balanced."

Previous lobbying efforts used Richard Stallman, the uncompromising, evangelical figurehead of the free software movement as their ace when trying to win over MEPs bewildered by the complexity of the subject.

"Their earlier conferences here attracted computer science geeks. They looked like Stallman clones with their ponytails and hippy demeanour. I think that rather put off the well-coiffed MEPs who were the target of the events," said another veteran lobbyist who also requested anonymity.

The line-up next week is overwhelmingly European. Previously, the lobby was dominated by Americans. The only group the old lobby managed to win round was the Green Party, which has hosted previous events as well as next week's conference.

Most MEPs have converged on a position that ignores the views from both extremes of the debate over software patents, and more or less endorses the approach to patents applied at present by the European Patent Office (EPO).

If the directive is passed in its current form it would, effectively, harmonise the existing regime at an EU-wide level. EPO standards on passing patents vary from country to country.

Arlene McCarthy, the socialist MEP responsible for proposing changes to the text at the plenary session, has come under intense criticism from the open-source and free software lobby for refusing to hear their point of view.

However, she claimed her critics have not read her proposed amendments.

"I am trying to improve the existing text by restricting what can be patented," she said, adding that she plans to table more amendments to the text before the plenary vote that will tighten up the definition of what can be patented even further.

Free and open-source software supporters argue that patents should not be awarded to software programs under any circumstances, claiming that patents stifle innovation by favouring big corporations with extensive patent portfolios and large legal budgets.

At the other end of the debate supporters of greater patent protection argue that Europe should step in line with the US and Japan, which both have fairly lax rules that permit software developers to register patents for so-called business methods.

These supporters also argue that their position promotes innovation because they claim that patents allow inventors to reap financial rewards from their inventions.

McCarthy said the hardline rejection of any Europewide law is misguided. "We can leave things as they are, but is that better for the future of software development in Europe? I don't think so.

"If we scrap this directive the problem won't go away. Under the current EPO regime several patents of dubious quality have been approved, and that will continue to happen."

But next week's presentations will tell MEPs that what most of them they view as a safe middle position in this complex debate is, in fact, dangerous for the future of Europe's software industry.

"It's going to be a close call, now that the patent opponents have got their act together," said one neutral lobbyist. "MEPs could well swing round and side with the directive's opponents. If they do it will be in spite of, not because of the lobbying effort so far."

Paul Meller writes for IDG News Service

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