The European Commission Thursday invited interested parties to comment on whether it should introduce a harmonised patent system for software inventions.
"The absence of EU-harmonised legislation may be a potential barrier to industrial growth, competitiveness and the development of the internal (EU) market," it said in a statement.
The Commission has placed a consultation document on its Web site. The deadline for responses is Dec. 15, 2000.
Debate about software patentability is lively, with some arguing that patents will actually stifle competition and hinder innovation.
These skeptics are mostly small and medium-size enterprises which "favor the creation and use of open-source software -- the so-called 'open source community,' " the Commission said. Others argue that swift action is needed to remove the current ambiguity and legal uncertainty surrounding patentability of software-related inventions.
While computer programs cannot in themselves be patented in Europe at present, technical inventions that use computer programs in them can be. Some industry insiders say, however, that the absence of such software patentability and the extra protection its affords developers risks making Europe lose the global innovation race in the high-technology sector.
The Commission said it will take into account four main factors when deciding its policy: first its impact on innovation and competition; second, the effect on European businesses; third, its impact on e-commerce and finally the how the policy will influence the creation and dissemination of open source software.
The Commission's consultation document can be found at http://europa.int.eu.int/comm/internal_market/en/intprop/indprop/index.htm.
The European Commission can be found on the Web at http://europa.eu.int/.