It's patently clear: EU now leaning toward software patenting

The European Union took a big step Tuesday in a relentless march toward software patenting. To the dismay and anger of many in the open source/free software movement, a meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council in Brussels won approval for a new draft, which must now go before the directly elected European Parliament later this year.

Previous amendments tossed aside

Last September, the proposed software patents directive was heavily amended by the Parliament. The majority of those amendments confirmed the status quo and would have kept software beyond the reach of patents. Tuesday's decision means that those amendments have now been thrown aside.

The new agreed-upon draft was strongly promoted and driven forward by the Irish Minister for Trade and Enterprise Mary Harney, who is also deputy prime minister. She has made patenting, including software, one of her priorities. Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the EU.

In a budget speech last December, she said: "The encouragement of patents is also a European and national priority. We want to give all possible support to the generation of new ideas and products. We are underlining that Ireland intends to become a world leader in converting ideas into jobs."

This strategy was further reinforced in the Irish Presidency's Programme for Competitiveness document: "The enforcement of intellectual property rights, a common regime for the community patent, community trade mark regulations, and the protection of software inventions form an important underpinning to the research and knowledge-based economy. We will ensure that progress is made in these areas."

Clearing up the Microsoft sponsorship

While Harney's pro-patent and zealous free enterprise approach is well known in Ireland, the country's stance has not been fully understood elsewhere.

For example, it has been alleged that the Irish Presidency was being sponsored by the Microsoft Corp. On investigation, however, the source of such speculation lies in the list of sponsors and contributors on the home page of the Irish presidency.

The sponsors listed on the site include a food company, a telco, a water company, and a car manufacturer. Microsoft is named as a contributor, alongside others such as Dell, two whiskey distillers, and a tour coach operator.

Press enquiries as to the fine details of the Microsoft contribution have so far gone unanswered, but industry sources believe that it amounts to the provision of server software for the duration of the Presidency, which ends in June.

More pertinently, the reasons for Ireland's conviction toward software patents lies in its economic relationship with the United States.

The Irish Times reported recently that U.S. investment in Ireland in 2003 was more than twice of that invested in China, amounting to more than $4.7 billion. Profits of U.S. companies based in Ireland rose by 45 percent in the same year.

What is central to the Irish government's cosiness toward software patenting is the presence of so many large U.S. technology companies in Ireland along with their enticing patent portfolios.

Yesterday's vote showed the Irish presidency's resolve for a new patent regime in Europe which, of course, may be of great benefit to Ireland in return. The country has placed many of its economic eggs in the information and communications technology basket.

Vote looms, but uphill struggle remains

The software patent directive still has to be put to a vote in the European Parliament in September, but following yesterday's vote it will now be an uphill struggle to defeat or amend it.

That battle is not yet over, according to James Heald of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. He told NewsForge: "It is harder to press amendments at second reading -- it requires absolute majorities -- but those were the sort of numbers we managed to get at first reading. So the vote in the autumn is likely to be on a knife-edge."

Direct elections will be held next month in all member states of the European Parliament. Heald said this "makes it especially important now to make candidates aware of just how important this is to so many of their constituents."

As part of that campaign, Free Software Foundation chief Richard Stallman has been touring European capitals speaking on the dangers of software patents. When he comes to Dublin next Monday, he won't be getting much of a welcome (OCead Mile Failte') from this Irish government.

Fergus Cassidy is a technology columnist with The Sunday Tribune in Dublin.

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