Stage is set for E.U. software patents clash

A clash between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers over the European Union (E.U.) software patents directive looks almost certain after the assembly chose an outspoken opponent of the legislation to draw up its response to the Council.

The Parliament’s internal market committee selected former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard to craft the committee’s reaction to the Council’s position on the software patents directive, which holds the proper title of the computer-implemented inventions directive.

Members of Parliament (MEPs) already reacted angrily to the position taken by the Council in May, which, they claimed, threw out all of the software patentability restrictions they included in the directive.

Rocard, who drew up the Parliament culture committee’s report on the legislation in 2003, declared himself a “supporter of free software” in a newspaper interview in July 2003, saying “the patentability of software is likely to create a terrifying financial and legal threat, weighing down on software creators.”

His appointment to draft the response was welcomed by Holger Blasum of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure in Munich. “That Michel Rocard is taking over the dossier reflects the fact that the wider economic, infrastructural and social implications for Europe are now seen more clearly. Also, in the Council a learning process has begun, and it will be supported by the Parliament’s move,” he said in a telephone interview.

Not everyone is as pleased. Francisco Mingorance of the Business Software Alliance in Brussels said that as Rocard hasn’t shown any sympathy to the directive in the past “we can only hope he will be sufficiently open to the view of persons and groups which have a different opinion.”

However, Mingorance doubts that Rocard will be able to impose his views on the rest of the committee and the Parliament. “At the end of the day he has to broker an agreement between the different sections of the committee”, he said.

In May, the Council of Ministers adopted its position on the directive, which was widely attacked for opening the door to widespread patenting of software and ignoring the safeguards demanded by MEPs in their final report, in particular by excluding software and algorithms from the scope of the directive.

Danny Cohn-Bendit, Green MEP leader, said that the Council position “makes a mockery” of the Parliament’s position.

The Parliament will not start work on its response to the Council position until the end of this year or even possibly the beginning of the next. Translation delays have meant that the final text of the agreement reached in May will not be formally approved until November at the earliest.

The Greens have welcomed the delay, saying it offers an opportunity for the Council to rethink its position.

Under the E.U.’s codecision procedure, both the Parliament and the Council have to reach an agreement on the final text. However, if no consensus can be found, observers warn that the worst-case scenario will occur with national patent laws, which generally allow wider scope for patenting, continuing to apply.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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