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Protests delay software patents vote

The European Parliament delays voting on a controversial software-patents directive, after protests and criticism by computer scientists and economists.

The European Parliament has delayed voting on a controversial software-patents directive, after protests and criticism by computer scientists and economists.

The vote, originally planned for Monday, will now take place at a plenary session starting Sept. 22.

Software patents have been likened to allowing a monopoly on the ideas behind stories, and opponents of the proposed Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions claim it would effectively allow unlimited software patents. In the United States, large companies acquire arsenals of patents that they use to protect themselves from upstart competition.

The directive, drafted by Labor Member of European Parliament Arlene McCarthy, has generated political opposition from the Greens and the European Socialist Party (PSE), among others. The German and French socialist parties are using the delay as an opportunity to raise MEPs' awareness of the issues surrounding software patents ahead of the late-September plenary session.

A demonstration last week in Brussels, Belgium, that attracted more than 400 participants was organized by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) and Eurolinux, among other groups, which also persuaded several hundred Web sites to black out their front pages in protest.

A June vote on the proposal was put back amid criticism by MEPs that the legislation would institute a U.S.-style patent atmosphere 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 different EU member states have different criteria for accepting the validity of software-related patents, a situation that the Commission's proposal aims to remedy.

MEP McCarthy said in a June analysis of the proposed directive that there were links between the patentability of computer-related inventions and the growth of IT industries in the United States. Such patents aided "in particular the growth of small and medium enterprises and independent software developers," she wrote, citing a study on the issue carried out for the European Parliament by London's Intellectual Property Institute.

But in a recent letter criticizing the directive, a group of economists poured scorn on any notion that software patents and business growth are connected, saying most economic research does not support this claim. They argued that the directive in its current form would "have serious detrimental effects on European innovation, growth, and competitiveness."

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.