EU rejects controversial software patent bill

STRASBOURG— European Union lawmakers overwhelmingly voted down a controversial bill on software patents yesterday, ending what had become one of the biggest legislative battles in the EU for years. The bill, which was rejected by 648 votes to 14, had pitted big technology companies wanting greater legal protection for their software against small firms worried that patents would keep them from making competitive innovations.

By (AFP)

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Published: Thu 7 Jul 2005, 10:31 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 4:37 PM

The draft law, which was rejected after its second reading, was a common position drawn up by the 25 member states last March and was four years in the making. It would have seen inventions using computer software in some form, from washing machines to mobile telephones protected by patents. It is the first time the European Parliament (EP) has rejected a text on its second reading without making an attempt at so-called ”conciliation” with the members.

As it snaked its way through the legislative process, bouncing between the European Commission, member states and the parliament, it stirred up some of the fiercest lobbying in years. Big tech companies are in favour of a patent system that would not only protect inventions running a computer programme but also the programme itself.

However, small tech companies want patents to cover only the invention running the programme, allowing the software to be used by others.

The prospect of patents protecting the underlying software is in particular worrying to backers of so-called “open source” programmes, which rely on the free exchange of ideas to develop software. The CompTIA association representing the information technology industry tried to put a brave face on the rejection of software patents, saying that the vote was “an acceptable outcome”.

“Conflicting views have confused the issue and made it difficult for the EP to reach a clear and balanced decision that would adequately support innovation in Europe,” it said in a statement. However, the bill not only pitted small companies against big ones, but also sparked friction between the EU institutions.

European Parliament President Josep Borrell welcomed the crushing vote against the bill as “one more milestone in the history of the parliament,” because it marked the first time, to his knowledge, that the chamber rejected a position that had already been approved by all of the EU member states. I am pleased that the parliament has marked its position,” he told journalists after the vote, adding: “I hope that the parliament will be taken more in consideration starting from now.”

Former French prime minister and MEP Michel Rocard, who proposed amendments to the bill which would have limited patenting to just the machines that run software, struck out at what he saw as the ”total, arrogant and sarcastic contempt” shown by member states and the commission towards the parliament. He said that the vote sent “a strong signal that you cannot go on treating the parliament as you did”.

The parliament’s powers to block legislation proposed by member states or the commission are currently limited to certain fields.

However, European Commission spokesman Oliver Drewes, voicing disappointment at the vote, warned that as a result of it Europe faced “fragmentation” between different legal systems in member states. “It means fragmentation, it means 25 different systems competing in one way or another and less clarity for operators, and for member states and for everybody in this area,” he said.

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