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Patent battle to culminate in Brussels

More than 600 Web sites plan to take part in an online protest against a proposed European law on software patents that's timed to coincide with a real-life protest on Wednesday.

More than 600 Web sites plan to take part in an online protest against a proposed European law on software patents that's timed to coincide with a real-life protest in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday.

Those rallying against the proposal, including some of Europe's most prominent scientists and software businesses, believe its current draft would open the door to the patenting of software and business processes, effectively shutting out software competition from small and medium-size developers.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which is organizing the online protest, is urging Web sites to temporarily replace their front pages with a note of protest. Some sites are also redirecting people to a petition and a call for action against the proposed directive that regards patents of computer-implemented inventions, which will be submitted to the European Parliament for approval on Sept. 1.

The call for action has already amassed more than 7,000 names since earlier this year, including several members of European Parliament and developers such as Opera Software, while the more general petition has accumulated more than 170,000 names.

"Leaders of the scientific communities and software business world took the directive proposal apart and condemned it in every respect. Yet in June, the European Parliament's Legal Affairs Commission endorsed this proposal with further amendments that make it even worse," Benjamin Henrion, one of the protest organizers, said in a statement. "More and more people are now seeing this very clearly."

The FFII and software-oriented groups such as EuroLinux are also organizing a rally that's planned for Wednesday, near the European Parliament in Brussels. The participants will be carrying banners with slogans such as "Software patents kill efficient software development" and the more pithy "Innovation, not litigation."

They are expected to be joined by a group of interested mimes, which also participated in a May demonstration that attracted 200 participants. The protest will be followed by briefings in the parliament building.

A June vote on the controversial proposal was postponed amid criticism by members of European Parliament that the legislation would institute a U.S.-style patent regime that would be detrimental to European small businesses and open-source software developers.

The proposed software-patenting legislation is the result of a European Commission effort to clarify patenting rules as they apply to "computer-implemented inventions," a term that can be taken to include software. The patent offices of various European Union member states currently have different criteria for accepting the validity of software-related patents, a situation that the commission's proposal aims to remedy.

However, opponents of the suggested legislation charge that the ambiguity of the current draft would effectively allow most software to be patented, a situation which currently exists in the United States and which critics have compared to allowing a monopoly on the ideas in novels.

Writing in The Guardian in June, Arlene McCarthy, the British Labor member of European Parliament who is guiding the software patents proposal through that body, asserted that the legislation would "provide legal certainty for European software inventors" and protect the investments of small European software companies.

"It is time some of the 'computer rights campaigners' got real," she wrote. "Patents for software inventions will not go away. It is infinitely better for the EU to harmonize laws across the EU with a view to limiting patentability, than to continue with the mess of national courts and European Patent Office systems, and the drift towards U.S. patent models."