EU software patent vote appears delayed till 2005

The controversial European software patent directive will not make it to the next step on its long legislative process this year, as increasing political pressure has apparently caused the Council of the European Union to delay its vote on the matter until 2005.

Marc Verwilghen, the Belgian minister of economics and energy, told the country's Parliament on Tuesday that the "Patentability of Computer-implemented Inventions" directive would not be voted on by the Council of the European Union before the end of the year "for the reason that the qualified majority no longer exists," according to a transcript of his speech posted on the Belgian Parliament Web site, deKamer.be in PDF form.

Verwilghen could not be immediately reached for further comment.

The legislative arms of the E.U., the Council of the European Union -- informally referred to as the Council of Ministers -- and the European Parliament have been wrangling over differing versions of the directive. The directive was submitted by the E.U.'s executive body, the European Commission, in February 2002.

The Parliament added amendments to the directive that would have barred the patenting of software. However, in May, the Council of Ministers, whose members are politicians from E.U. member states' national governments, narrowly passed its own version of the directive that reintroduced software patenting. That version of the directive is now awaiting final approval from the Council before the proposed legislation goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading.

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. But last month, the future of the directive was thrown into doubt after the Polish government indicated it could no longer support the legislation in its current form.

Verwilghen, however, did not say in his speech which countries are leaning against the Council's pro-software patent version of the directive.

A reversal of the Council's decision in May could derail the process by sending it back to the Commission or back into a working group.

The Commission on Thursday declined to specify when the Council vote is now expected to take place. "We are expecting the political agreement reached on May 18 to be approved at a forthcoming Council (meeting). We've not been told that any member state has changed its position," a Commission spokeswoman said.

A representative of the Council's rotating Presidency, now held by the Netherlands, said that the May agreement was still on track to be adopted at a Council meeting. The representative said Poland has not notified the Presidency about a change of position.

Sources close to the situation in Brussels say that pressure is being put on the Poles to not change their original position.

Currently, different European national courts have been interpreting patent laws in a variety of conflicting ways. Should the E.U. fail in its attempts to establish an overarching patent standard for computer-related inventions, including but not limited to software, the confusion over technology patents in Europe will only deepen, according to trade groups such as the European IT and communications industry association.

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