European Parliament rejects patent law proposal

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to reject proposed legislation that critics argued would have allowed the widespread patenting of software in Europe.

The MEPs voted by 648 votes to 18 to reject the proposed directive on computer-implemented inventions, dubbed the software patents directive by critics.

French Socialist MEP Michel Rocard, who drafted the Parliament’s position on the directive, said that the Parliament’s vote had been about the fundamental issue of the “free circulation of ideas,” which, he said, software patents would have prevented. He said the vote was a backlash against the “unpleasant feeling that the Commission is in the pockets of Microsoft” as it had ignored the Parliament’s requests to restart the legal process in order to improve the legislation.

Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian Green MEP, who has led opposition to the proposal said the vote was an “opportunity to have a burial service for the directive with no flowers.”

The directive has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in the history of the E.U. Supporters said the directive was essential to harmonize patent laws across the 25 E.U. member states. Opponents, including many from the open source software community, argued that it would have allowed a wide range of computer programs to be patented and given large technology vendors too much power in the software market.

The decision to reject the directive brings to an end four years of work on the proposal, and the Commission has said it will not try to draft a new version.

Without the directive, “patents for computer-implemented inventions will continue to be issued by national patent offices and the European Patent Office,” E.U. Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said following Wednesday’s vote.

The rejection of the directive means there will be “no harmonization at E.U. level,” he said, drawing cheers from some MEPs.

Trouble emerged for the directive Tuesday evening after one of the biggest political groups, the European People’s Party, announced that it would vote for rejection rather than risk approving a long list of amendments to the legislation, which it feared would drastically restrict the scope of what can be patented.

Ahead of the vote, both supporters and opponents of the directive said rejection may be the best result.

“Rejection would be a wise decision because [approving the directive with the amendments] could have narrowed the scope of patenting,” said Mark MacGann, director-general of the European Information Technology and Communications Association (EICTA), an industry group representing big vendors including Microsoft Corp., Nokia Corp. and Siemens AG.

EICTA had opposed the amendments to the directive, which sought to ensure that patents could not be applied to software including data processing. EICTA and other industry groups argued that the restrictions went too far and would have denied patent protection to many inventions that used a computer in their operation. MacGann said the vote would allow EICTA members to carry on filing applications for patents through national patent offices and the European Patent Office in Munich.

But the decision was also welcomed by members of the open-source software community, who have been leading the campaign against the directive.

Erik Josefsson, the Brussels representative of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, said the result was a “great victory” and congratulated the Parliament on its “clear ‘no’ to bad legislative proposals and procedures.”

Parliament’s overwhelming rejection of the proposal means that the computer-implemented inventions directive is now dead in its current form. However, the issue could be resurrected if the Commission responds to calls from MEPs to launch a new bid to set up an E.U.-wide patent system for all inventions, not just those using computer programs for their implementation.

Attempts to agree an E.U.-wide system failed in 2004 after Germany and Spain insisted that patent applications be filed in their respective languages. This measure would have prevented the new system from fulfilling one of its key aims, to offer a cheaper, one-stop shop for patent applications, replacing the current system of 25 national offices plus the European Patent Office.

Some industry groups welcome the call for a new E.U.-wide system.

“As an industry we would like to see a more horizontal approach dealing with all sectors,” said Francisco Mingorance, director of the Business Software Alliance.

An E.U.-wide system would allow inventors to file for patent protection in the whole region and not just in one country at a time, Mingorance said. He also noted that inventors must file applications in 25 different countries to protect their innovations in the E.U.’s market of 360 million people, while in the U.S., patents only have to be filed in one system for a market of just under 300 million people.

The patent directive generated the heaviest lobbying campaigns in the E.U.’s history and has seen a series of high-profile stunts by campaigners trying to win support for their arguments.

On Tuesday, the canal surrounding the European Parliament’s Strasbourg headquarters saw a mini-naval battle as a boat hired by the Campaign for Creativity, a pro-directive lobby group, was attacked by opponents of the legislation in canoes carrying banners reading “patents stifle creativity.”

Austria’s Lichtenberger said some of the lobbying violated Parliament’s rules, and noted, for example, that the Campaign for Creativity failed to disclose the source of its funding.

Updated 2:30 PM 07/06/05: Added quotes from Members of European Parliament and reaction.

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