EC Passes Controversial Patent Directive

The European Commission (EC) has passed a controversial directive that opponents claim will bolster the lot of big companies at the expense of small ones and will stifle innovation.

The so-called Computer-Implemented Inventions directive, which would harmonize how software patents are issued throughout the European Union, created a furor when it was proposed last year. Protestors took to the streets in Brussels, Belgium, and passive Web site demonstrations were held on the Internet.

Supporters of the measure are putting a benign face on it. “There are already plenty of software patents in Europe — more than 30,000 of them,” maintained Francisco Medeiros, public affairs director for the Business Software Alliance, which represents some of the largest software makers in the world.

Attempt at Harmony

“This ensures that the rules are applied in a uniform manner across Europe,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The directive is an attempt to harmonize the rules that apply to computer-implemented inventions, be it software or hardware.”

He added that the directive also is aimed at avoiding the creation of a patent environment for software similar to the one in the United States, which has been a steady source of controversy.

“No other country in the world has gone as far as the U.S. to create software patents,” James Muraff, a patent attorney with Wallenstein Wagner & Rockey in Chicago, told TechNewsWorld. “But you would think that if any region in the world would go that far next, it would be Europe.”

Business Method Mayhem

What opponents of the directive fear is that allowing software patents will open the door to patenting “business methods,” such as Amazon.com’s 1-Click feature, which was patented in the United States.

“Software saw a huge upsurge in patenting when it became clear that the U.S. Patent Office would allow business methods to be patentable,” Grantland G. Drutchas, a partner with McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff in Chicago, told TechNewsWorld.

Although proponents of the directive contend that business methods like 1-Click aren’t patentable under the measure, opponents have a different view.

Disaster Directive

“The law is written in such a way that you can patent anything that you like,” declared Laura Creighton, a venture capitalist with AB Strakt in Gothenburg, Sweden, and a member of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), an organization opposed to the directive in its current form.

“If the point of the law was to prevent U.S.-style patenting of software, this does exactly the opposite and would be a disaster,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“We believe the decision was wrong and that it will hurt innovative European companies,” added Hkon Wium Lie, chief technical officer at Opera Software in Oslo, Norway.

Heavy Rewrite

“The web was invented in Europe,” Lie told TechNewsWorld via e-mail. “The chance of something as grand ever happening again here is smaller after the most recent vote.”

Last year, after a hue and cry was raised against the directive by economists, software developers, computer scientists and small businesses, the European Parliament heavily rewrote the legislation.

According to Creighton, the measure was so marked up that it had to be sent to an independent body to be redrafted into legalese. That body was composed mainly of civil servants from European patent offices.

Foxes in the Henhouse

“That wasn’t a good thing to do,” Creighton contended, “because if the purpose of the law was to restrict the activities of the patent offices that were granting patents on software too liberally, then you really shouldn’t have the patent offices choosing the new wording for things.”

The result of all this redrafting was a directive that looked quite similar to the one presented to the European Parliament before it was amended there.

Now that the EC has approved the directive, it again will be sent to the European Parliament for final approval later this year. There, opponents will have another crack at scuttling the measure. “We’re not dead yet,” declared Creighton.

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