Brussels, 07 Jul 2004
The European software patent directive, passed during the EU Competitiveness Council of 18 May, seems set to be reviewed after the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament passed a motion instructing the minister of economic affairs, Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, to change the government's vote on the directive from a vote in favour to an abstention.
Officials in other European countries also say that votes cast by ministers during the meeting were not a true indication of their governments' position. Countries involved include Denmark, Germany, Poland and Portugal.
The political storm is the latest incident in the conflict between large corporations, supporters of patents with considerable research investments and small and medium sized software enterprises, computer scientists and research institutes who oppose software patents arguing patents would kill innovation and wipe out many of Europe's small companies.
In an historic move, the Dutch parliament has asked to change the yes vote it cast in support of patenting software across Europe. The parliament argues it thought it was voting on a revised version of the original proposal put forward by EU Internal Affairs Commissioner Frits Bolkestein and containing the amendments made by the European Parliament. This version allowed patents for industrial inventions but not for pure software.
In the end, however, that version was discarded by the Council of Ministers, who reverted to the original draft, which legalised software patents.
'This political signal extends beyond the Netherlands. We hope that other EU countries with similar doubts will also retract their approval, resulting in a minority in favour of the proposed directive,' said Dieter Van Uytvanck, a spokesperson for the Dutch Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.
Indeed, proposals have been introduced in parliaments in other EU countries, including Germany, to reflect on a change in their own votes.
This change of circumstances could lead to a new vote by the Competitiveness Council to invalidate its previous decision, thus making software ineligible for patenting.
The situation at present, however, is that the directive, with the Council's amendments agreed to in May, goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading in the autumn, and if approved, will be binding on member states.
'We support this new EU directive as proposed by the Competitiveness Council, and we hope it will be approved by the European Parliament,' said Ruud Peters, head of Philips's intellectual property and standards division. Further changes, Mr Peters added, 'would have major implications for all innovative companies in Europe, and for the European economy in general, and will lead to the loss of thousands of high-quality jobs in R&D [research and development] in Europe.'