European Parliament agrees on software patents

The European Parliament voted in favour of a law that goes some way toward limiting the scope for patents on software programs Wednesday.

The issue still must be debated by European Union (EU) member states before a new law is passed, however.

With 364 voting in favour, 153 against and 33 abstentions, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) appear to have ignored heavy lobbying from both extremes in the debate by opting for a compromise solution.

The Parliament was considering changes to the original text published by the European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the EU. Most of the changes were designed to tighten up the wording of the law to make it harder for people to obtain patents.

For example, the MEPs agreed to an amendment which outlaws the patenting of algorithms. Another accepted amendment explicitly outlaws the patenting of business methods, such as the “one-click” online shopping technique patented in the U.S. by

“Inventions involving computer programs which implement business, mathematical or other methods and do not produce any technical effect beyond the normal physical interactions between a program and the computer, network or other programmable apparatus in which it is run, shall not be patentable,” the amendment read.

This is the first of two votes on the software patent directive in the European Parliament. Before casting their ballots again, the directive, including the amendments agreed on by the MEPs Wednesday, will be debated by ministers from the 15 EU state governments.

Speaking shortly after the vote Wednesday, MEP Arlene McCarthy, a U.K. member of the Socialist Party, said the Parliament has sent a clear message: “We do want strict limits on patentability of software. All the amendments that were adopted were in this direction,” she said. “We have effectively rewritten the directive.”

McCarthy led the debate when the bill was being discussed at committee stage in the Parliament and also drew up the amendments to be considered at this week’s plenary session of the body.

She said, however, that she expects the text supported by the Parliament today to be rejected by the 15 member state governments and by the directive’s original author, the European Commission.

“They will probably say we have gone too far in restricting software patents,” McCarthy said.

“I tried to balance the various interests here with a text that doesn’t undermine the obvious need for patent protection for real inventions, while averting a slide towards the more liberal patent regime in the U.S.,” McCarthy said.

The European Commission gave a guarded response to the vote in the European Parliament.

“We will carefully analyze the amendments adopted,” said Jonathan Todd, EC spokesman for internal market affairs.

“Our proposal represents a middle way. If the member state governments think the Parliament has gone to far (away from our position) they won’t adopt the directive,” Todd said.

McCarthy said there is a danger that member states could cut the European Parliament out of the lawmaking process by scrapping the directive altogether and instead revising the existing Munich Patent Convention, which is the legal base for the existing patent regime operated by the European Patent Office (EPO).

The EPO regime is a patchwork of national interpretations of the Patent Convention. One of the aims of the EU directive was to harmonize the approach to patents across the European Union.

McCarthy said scrapping the directive would be a bad outcome for the software industry. “The existing regime is supposed to outlaw business method patents, but some are being approved. Without an EU-wide law there will always be a danger that European law slides towards the law in the U.S.,” she said.

Ministers from member state governments are scheduled to debate the directive in November. It is common for the European Parliament to tone down its differences with the EC and the member state governments, once all branches of the EU have had a chance to issue debate issues.

“We want to be careful not to push too far,” McCarthy said.

The directive would only come into effect as law if Parliament and the national governments agree on its wording. Once they agree, the 15 member states have about 18 months to implement the directive into their own national laws.

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