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EU Parliament Rejects Effort To Beef Up Software Patents

In rejecting legislation on computer and software patents Wednesday, the European Parliament closes the door on patent reform -- and, opponents say, on the threat of a stifling software patent "gold rush" among large, wealthy corporations.
In rejecting legislation on computer and software patents Wednesday, the European Parliament closed the door on patent reform. Most campaigners who lobbied for or against the legislation said they would accept the outcome and some hailed resolution of the four-year debate.

"The dust will have to settle," said Florian Mueller, who spearheaded an effort to outlaw patents for software. "It's too early to say what will happen now. It's possible nothing will happen on the legislative level for years."

Parliament had been scheduled to vote on some 60 amendments on patents when European political party leaders got together Tuesday night and agreed to abandon the proposal. If approved, the complicated proposal, including amendments, would have had to navigate a daunting maze of additional political and legislative hurdles.

The debate attracted companies big and small, as well as different countries, politicians, and individuals. The status quo--much of it based on EU patent legislation created in 1973, just as software was being unbundled from hardware--is likely to continue. Some close to the debate saw the Legislature's non-action as a lost opportunity, however.

"Today's decision also represents a lost opportunity for Europe to establish a common ground for high-tech innovation that would help foster further successes and development," said Simon Gentry of a group called the Campaign for Creativity.

Mueller, who founded lobbying organization Nosoftwarepatents.com, said the non-decision by Parliament is likely to mean there will be scant litigation over software patents, because there is no extensive legislation governing software. He said: "It's a strange situation in Europe now, because the legal status [of software patents] is uncertain," said Mueller.

Generally, large companies with extensive patent portfolios, such as Microsoft, SAP, and Nokia, wanted Parliament to grant increased patent protection, while many small and medium-size companies argued that a relaxed patent policy would encourage them to innovate.

The proposed legislation, the Computer Implemented Inventions Directive, was formulated in 2001, but it underwent several revisions.

While organizations representing a gamut of software interests, from big corporations to small companies to individual open-source developers, generally said Parliament's vote was acceptable, there were those who predicted gloom and doom. "To fail to legislate at all would leave the industry to the mercy of the European Patent Office, the courts, and panels of the World Trade Organization," said U.K. Member of Parliament Andrew Duff, who was quoted by the BBC. "That could be a costly, legalistic, and confusing situation."

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