E.U. ministers sign off on proposed patent law

The European Union (E.U.) has taken a step closer to agreeing on controversial new legislation that could make it easier for technology companies to patent their inventions in Europe. The development came as a blow to critics of the proposed law, who argue that it could drive small software developers out of the market.

Economics ministers meeting in the E.U.’s Competitiveness Council in Brussels on Monday formally adopted an agreement first reached in May 2004 on the so-called computer-implemented inventions directive.

The decision means that the process of approving the legislation, which had ground to a halt in December, can be restarted. The text of the agreement approved Monday now passes to members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for debate.

The Parliament’s members, however, are expected to demand far-reaching changes to ensure that the legislation does not apply to computer programs or to software itself. They remain angry that their request last month to restart the decision-making process was ignored.

Under the E.U.’s codecision-making process, the Parliament and the Council must try to reach agreement on the proposed legislation. The Parliament can choose to reject a deal put forward by the Council, and some MEPs have already warned that this could happen.

The decision to push ahead also faces increasing opposition from European governments, which expressed concerns with the proposed legislation on Monday, even as they advanced it to the next stage.

Poland, for example, said it will only support the legislation when it next comes up for discussion by the Council of Ministers if changes are made to ensure that it will not permit computer programs to be patented. Six other countries also expressed concerns with the proposal Monday: the Netherlands, Latvia, Hungary, Denmark, Portugal and Cyprus.

Denmark’s deputy Prime Minister Bendt Bendtsen, who attended Monday’s meeting, had asked for the agreement be debated openly, with the support of Portugal. But Luxembourg’s economics minister, Jeannot Kreck