Europe Braces for Patent Rules

CARDIFF, Wales – Computer programmers across Europe are mobilizing for next month’s European Parliament election in an effort to block plans by European governments to grant software patents more frequently.

Many coders fear a controversial law approved last week by the region’s ministers will pave the way for widespread restrictions on essential software components if it’s rubber-stamped by Parliament members later this year.

Smaller publishers say it will grant automatic monopolies to large multinationals and cripple the industry – unless they can plug popular opposition into the continentwide ballot process, now entering full swing.

‘We’re making this an election issue,’ Richard Stallman, the spiritual leader of the free software movement, told an audience of disgruntled developers he addressed in Bristol, England. ‘We can win this battle. We’re talking about a new bureaucracy tying up every business in Europe. It’s very harmful and only to the advantage of the mega-corporations.’

Although publishers cannot currently patent the algorithms and ideas that make up software, the European Patent Office is issuing more and more patents on programs that, nevertheless, have real-world uses – for example, control software on semiconductors in the lenses of digital cameras.

To tidy up the rules, the European Council has drawn up the new Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions, which would introduce a unified software-patenting system continentwide for the first time. But patent opponents are concerned loose definitions in the bill will mean a patent land grab on everyday applications.

Lobbied by anti-patent programmers, members of the elected Parliament last year made amendments designed to exclude general software ideas from patents. But the council last week overturned those amendments. Programmers now fear a free-for-all on common algorithms and methods, sparking American-style patent wars. It would conceivably be hard to write an application independently without the threat of being sued by a powerful patent holder.

The modified bill will be hit back to the Parliament in Strasbourg, France, for a second reading in September, when only a majority vote against it can undo the changes and derail the looming legislation.

With one last chance before the law is passed, programmers are moving to sway the world’s largest-ever transnational election, warning Parliament candidates that, if they want to return to their 732 seats come June 10, they had better listen to the coders’ concerns.

Stallman has accused Arlene McCarthy, a pro-patent English member of the European Parliament who has helped develop the directive, of lying to voters about the benefits of her patent plans, alleging she was in the pocket of big business interests.

But McCarthy said opponents were spreading ‘a barrage of misinformation’ about the still-evolving law, and she was not concerned about the possibility of losing votes over her involvement.

‘Patent protection is vital if we are to challenge the U.S. dominance in the software-inventions market,’ she said. ‘Mr. Stallman is naive if he believes that no directive is the answer. Good patent law for computer-implemented inventions will protect software-development companies and give them a return on their investment through license fees.’

McCarthy backs the Parliament’s amendments, but legal experts say the new law the new law is just a housekeeping exercise for an increasingly unwieldy European community, recently expanded from 15 to 25 member states.

‘There is a lot of hoo-ha, but the new directive does not make a great deal of difference from the current position,’ said Cardiff University law tutor Howard Johnson, an intellectual property expert. ‘It largely reflects what the European Patent Office is already doing.’

But that hasn’t soothed independent developers. Norwegian browser maker Opera is one of the names on a 15,000-signature anti-patent petition organized by the Munich, Germany-based Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.

‘The pharmaceutical industry may need incentives to fund its research, but the software industry does not,’ said Håkon Wium Lie, Opera’s chief technology officer. ‘Writing software is more like composing a symphony than finding a molecular structure. If Mozart had patented the symphony, what would Beethoven have done?’