E.U. ministers, Parliament clash on patent legislation

Ministers from European Union (E.U.) governments are planning to push ahead with controversial legislation that would open the door for software to be patented, despite a request by members of the European Parliament to restart the legal process for the proposed law.

Nicolas Schmit, deputy foreign minister of Luxembourg, which is currently chairing the E.U. Council of Ministers meetings, said on Thursday that he would ask the body, composed of ministers from E.U. member-state governments, to formally adopt on Feb. 17 a draft directive on patents. Opponents of the legislation believe it would allow for a U.S.-style patent regime.

Schmit’s decision comes after the Polish government finally bowed to intense political pressure and agreed to support the directive after having blocked its formal adoption twice.

Opponents of the legislation say that, in their interpretation, the proposed law would allow so-called pure software — code or algorithms not necessarily incorporated into hardware devices — to be patented. Up to now it has not been permitted in the E.U.

By pushing ahead on adoption of the directive, Schmit is ignoring European parliamentarians who voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to restart the entire legal process to win more time to review the legislation.

Members of Parliament are elected directly by citizens of the E.U. countries. The Parliament shares legislative powers with the Council of Ministers.

On Wednesday members of the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee voted 19-to-2 in favour of restarting the legislative process for the patent directive by asking the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, to withdraw or change its proposal, which it first submitted two years ago. The president of the European Parliament must approve the committee’s vote after consulting the leaders of the assembly’s political groups. This is normally a formality, especially with such a large majority of committee members backing the request.

Restarting the process for the patent directive would provide breathing space to carry out assessments of its impact. It would allow also greater clarity over the key issue of whether the version of the proposed law agreed by the Council of Ministers in May would in fact allow pure software to be patented.

If the normal legal process were to advance, the European Parliament will still be able to propose changes to the legislation to address its concerns about the impact of the new rules.

U.K. Labour Member of Parliament Arlene McCarthy said that the Parliament would react very strongly at attempts to ignore their views. “It’s within the (Luxembourg) Presidency’s prerogative but they should bear in mind they’ll have a very rough ride in second reading from the European Parliament,” she said.

Parliament’s previous attempts to insert safeguards to prevent patent rules being extended to pure software were rejected by the Council.

Meanwhile, E.U. Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy said on Wednesday that he was keeping “all his options open.”

Opponents of the planned patent directive, who have been lobbying to restart the legal process, argued that Schmit’s move would not have any real effect. They claim that the European Commission, following the Parliament’s vote on Wednesday, was to decide whether to withdraw or revise its proposal and effectively restart the legal process.

“It’s not up to the Council. The Council has not been asked anything,” said Erik Josefsson of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.