BRUSSELS -- Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will take the next crucial step in a four-year-long battle over software patents within the European Union (E.U.) on Wednesday, when they hold a decisive vote on a proposed E.U. law, or directive, on computer-implemented inventions (CII). The proposal has been dubbed the "software patent directive" by its opponents.
The directive is intended to harmonize the patent regime across all 25 member states of the E.U. to offer patent protection to new inventions that are made possible through the use of computer technology, such as mobile phones, digital televisions and washing machines.
The MEPs have to reach an agreement with the European Council of Ministers (made up of representatives of the national governments of the member states) on the text of the legislation before it can become law. In Wednesday's vote, MEPs will consider a series of amendments to a text agreed by the Council in May, called the Council's common position.
While all sides agree that software itself should not be patentable (being covered by copyright law) the fierce debate over the directive has been over the wording of the legislation and, in particular, how terms like invention and innovation are defined.
Large IT companies argue that some of the amendments being proposed by MEPs opposed to the Council's common position do not offer sufficient patent protection because they are based on outdated definitions of technical inventions which are no longer relevant in the digital field.
Critics of the proposed legislation, mainly from the open source community but also including IBM and Sun Microsystems, argue that it would open the door to widespread patenting of software and computer programs and allow large IT firms to dominate the market, as small firms would not have the resources to fight litigation from companies that hold many patents.
A large number of MEPs want to clarify definitions to ensure that there are no loopholes for patent lawyers to exploit which would allow software patents through the back door.
A group of almost 200 MEPs from across the political spectrum, including representatives of the far left, the Greens, the Socialists, some Liberals and center-right politicians, is pushing a package of 21 amendments which seeks to restrict the scope of the patent regime. To be adopted, amendments need the support of at least 367 of the 732 MEPs.
That package has won backing from free software campaigners and small businesses alike.
"If we want to preserve a competitive, innovative and successful European IT sector, it is essential that the Council's common position be amended. We believe the set of 21 compromise amendments being put forward by MEPs from all political groups is what is needed to achieve this goal and avoid the worst case scenario of a U.S.-style software patent system," said Rufus Pollock, director of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure U.K. (FFII UK), in a prepared statement Monday.
The FFII UK statement also quoted Toby Churchill, chief executive officer (CEO) of Toby Churchill Ltd., a company which makes communication devices for the disabled, as saying that a U.S.-style software patent system in Europe would be dangerous for small and medium-size software companies and could lead to "frivolous patents" as companies seek to protect themselves from litigation.
However, large companies including German software developer SAP AG contest this view.