EU asked to restart patents legal process for software

Members of the European Parliament have voted overwhelmingly to ask the European Commission to withdraw draft legislation which, critics say, would open the door to allowing patents on pure software.

The decision, made at an impassioned meeting of the Parliament's legal affairs committee on Wednesday, is primarily a victory for the opponents of software patents who have been lobbying members to restart the legal procedure on legislation to insert safeguards against pure software being patented.

"We're 100 percent happy," said Erik Josefsson, a representative of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII). "We believe that the E.U. can take the lead in reforming a broke intellectual property system and create legal certainty for small and medium-sized businesses."

But the decision has also been welcomed by members of Parliament who believe new rules are needed to provide protection for innovators.

Arlene McCarthy, a U.K. Labour Euro-Parliamentarian who drafted the first opinion on the proposal, said: "Under the circumstances this is the best solution."

Restarting the procedure would allow input from countries, such as Poland, that felt they had not been properly consulted over the draft law. The Polish government played a key role in blocking a version of the draft law agreed to by European Union governments last May, twice vetoing its formal adoption.

Polish Parliamentarians have also led efforts to restart the legal process in the Parliament.

Members of the committee voted 19 in favor, with two against and one abstention, to ask the Commission to withdraw its proposal, known as the computer-implemented inventions directive.

The Commission now has a range of options. It can comply with Parliament's request and not table a new proposal, which would mean, in the absence of new legislation, that decisions on granting patents on software would be made by national patent offices.

It can also wait until the normal legal procedures are followed whereby the European Parliament would have a second chance to revise the deal adopted by the Council of Ministers, made up of national governments, before deciding whether to make changes to the proposal. But it is unlikely to do this, given the growing political opposition to the legislation in its current form.

The most likely scenario is that the procedure will be delayed by at least four to six months. This would allow time for the implications of the legislation to be assessed, McCarthy said.

She is calling for the Commission to carry out an impact assessment to see whether the draft legislation would be as damaging for different parts of the IT industry as lobbyists, both for and against the directive, claim. "Everyone wanted this looked at again," she said.

FFII's Josefsson said that his organization would be happy to help the Commission with any impact assessment and to identify the type of patents that "we definitely don't want."

McCarthy maintained that the large technology companies that have been calling for high levels of patent protection would not be disappointed by the delay.

"For industry I would have thought it would be better to have no regulation than bad regulation," she said, commenting that the version of legislation favored by Parliament set the bar too high to qualify for patent protection.

The issue was raised on Tuesday when Microsoft head Bill Gates met members of Parliament to discuss a range of issues concerning technology and global problems. Gates was asked where he stood on the issue as Microsoft is a member of one of the associations lobbying for a high level of patent protection. Gates is reported to have replied that it was a European affair because Microsoft is already operating under U.S. patents.

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