E.U. may restart process on patent law

The saga of the European Union (E.U.) software patent directive has continued unabated into the New Year with some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) backing an initiative to pull the plug on the directive, which is currently awaiting a vote in the Council of the E.U., and start afresh with the entire legislative process.

Sixty-one MEPs from 13 countries and four political groups have introduced a motion to ask the E.U.’s executive body, the European Commission, to resubmit the “Patentability of Computer-implemented Inventions” directive, Florian Mueller, manager of the NoSoftwarePatents (NSP) campaign said on Monday. The entire Parliament must vote on the request. If a majority of MEPs approve the motion, the Commission will be forced to restart the process for the directive.

Should the motion be effective, it would have to happen quickly, Mueller said. “Realistically, it would most likely take place during the next major plenary session of the Parliament beginning the week of Feb. 21,” he said.

NSP contends that copyright laws are enough to protect business innovations and would like patents for software to be outlawed in Europe. The group is supported by U.S.-based Linux operating system company Red Hat Inc., Swedish open-source database software company MySQL AB and German software and Internet services provider 1&1 Internet Ltd.

The directive, often referred to as the software patent directive, is currently awaiting a final vote by the Council of the E.U., or as it is also known, the Council of Ministers, before the proposed legislation goes back to the other legislative arm of the E.U., the European Parliament, for a second reading. The Council and the Parliament have been wrangling over differing versions of the directive since it was submitted by the Commission in February 2002.

Politicians are at odds over an outline agreement of the directive approved by the Council of Ministers last May 18. That agreement reversed amendments to the directive, added by Parliament, that bar the patenting of software.

In December, Polish Deputy Minister for Science and IT Wlodzimierz Marcinski formally requested a delay on the final Council vote, saying that his government needed more time to draw up an appropriate statement on the legislation. Representatives from the Council had contended that the final vote was being held up due to the work required for putting the text into all of the various languages of the E.U. member states.

The Commission on Monday declined comment on the motion to restart the legislative process or to specify when the Council vote is now expected to take place. “Nobody really knows when the Council will take its formal decision,” Mueller said.

Meanwhile, according to the text of the Parliamentary motion to restart the legislative process on the patent directive, a group of signatories led by former Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek began its initiative to relaunch the directive on Dec. 8.

“The group began getting signatures roughly between Dec. 8 and Dec. 16, but Buzek asked us to not make the move public until the New Year,” Mueller said.

While the motion has a real chance of derailing the progress of the Council of Ministers’ version of the “Patentability of Computer-implemented Inventions” directive, Leo Baumann of the European IT and communications industry association (EICTA), said he doesn’t expect the group will be successful in its request.

“It’s possible to do that but you need a majority of the European Parliament and the approval of the conference of presidents (leaders of the political groups). I don’t expect it to happen,” Baumann said.

The EICTA believes that some software needs patent protection. Its members include software firms like Microsoft Corp., SAP AG and Sun Microsystems Inc., hardware makers like Hewlett-Packard Co. and Intel Corp. and telecom companies like Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Nokia Corp.

The EICTA has warned that restarting the legislative process would only succeed in continuing the current uncertainty over patenting computer-implemented inventions, possibly for years. Thus far, the E.U. has been unable to bring into line the myriad interpretations given to patent law by different European national courts.

The NSP counters that since the May 18 vote by the Council, the E.U. increased its ranks from 15 countries to 25, bringing major changes to the political landscape, which in itself warrants a new approach to the directive. “Of the 732 MEPs serving, more than 400 are new. There is now a lot more sensitivity to the concerns over patenting software,” Mueller said.

— With files from Simon Taylor