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Software Patents and the EU

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Bit serious for me this wibble, but I needed somewhere to post this. What follows is a letter I've had (via email) from Andrew Duff, the only Lib Dem MEP for our region. I asked his team what his position was on software patents. This is the reply:

Thank you for your letter, expressing your concern about the European Commission's proposal for a Directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions.

I am convinced of the need for EU legislation in this area. Otherwise there will be an unstoppable drift towards the patenting of computer software, as there is in the USA. Many small and medium-sized firms in the East of England have told me of their concern that patenting will restrict their ability to write new and better software without infringing the rules. But, at the same time, SMEs will benefit if the proposed Directive succeeds in establishing clear ground rules.

A uniform approach across the EU will save companies time and money in protecting their intellectual property in computer engineering and improve legal certainty.

However, MEPs also voted to limit the scope of the legislation to affect new inventions only. The Parliament also revised the Commission's definitions of computer implemented inventions to try to protect the legitimate interests of individual software writers and small firms. On a Liberal initiative, a grace period of six months is proposed to allow market testing before the filing of a patent application. Crucially, the Parliament supported amendments to ensure that patent law cannot override interoperability of systems.

In this complex area of legislation the EU is right to act with caution. It has been difficult to strike a balance between the need for license fees on the one hand and the imperative for competition on the other. The European software industry needs a better patent system than the out-dated one we have now if it is to be helped to remain creative.

Many thousands of jobs in the East of England would be affected by a heavy-handed approach to software patenting. Cambridge is Europe's biggest cluster of the software industry, so the issue is of European as well as local importance. This law will help the smart innovation for which our region is world renowned.

I will be working to ensure that nothing will be patentable in the future that is not patentable now. Patents must only be available for things that make a technical contribution to a true invention. And any EU legislation must be compatible with our international agreements.

The draft proposal is now in the hands of the Council of Ministers who are certain to seek to modify the Parliament's position in the direction of the Commission's initial proposal. Once the Council has adopted its common position the proposal will pass back to the Parliament for a second reading, before its final adoption, probably in September.

The covering email, from Andrew's casework officer, said:

My understanding of the current position in Brussels is that the proposals revised by the Council will go to the (new) Parliament for second reading. If the Parliament chooses to reinsert its amendments it is likely (though of course by no means certain) that the Commission will withdraw the proposal.

Written 02/06/04

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