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Europe's software patent war ignites again

Patent debate may be taken out of hands of elected politicians under new measure, Parliament groups say.

Three political groups in the European Parliament have warned that the possibility of introducing software patents is re-emerging.

Last year, the Parliament derailed a proposed directive that, critics argued, would have legitimized software patents in Europe. On Thursday the PES, Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL parliamentary groups said that a measure facing a parliamentary vote on Oct. 11 or 12 could take up where the failed software patent directive left off.

Internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy plans to deliver a speech next week promoting the measure, called the European Patent Litigation Agreement.

In rebuttal, the three groups have filed a motion calling for "balance between the interests of patent holders and the broader public interest in innovation and competitive markets," a representative for the groups said Thursday. The motion argues that the European Patent Litigation Agreement weakens EU democracy, compromises judicial independence, increases litigation costs and may expose small and midsize businesses "to greater risks."

The EPP-ED and ALDE parliamentary groups support the European Patent Litigation Agreement.

Patents on software are formally disallowed under the European patent system but are routinely granted by the European patent office, according to critics. They are currently difficult to enforce in many EU member states, something critics say would be changed by the failed software patent directive, and now by the European Patent Litigation Agreement.

Software patents are generally considered to add to the legal costs of large enterprises and to create a hostile legal environment for smaller software businesses and open-source projects. However, companies that already have large portfolios of software patents are under pressure to increase the value of these assets in Europe.

Proponents of the failed software patent directive and the European Patent Litigation Agreement argue that the measures will not open the door to software patent litigation and will allow smaller companies to more easily benefit from the patent system.

The European Patent Litigation Agreement is "anachronistic" and is even disliked by some large companies such as Nokia and GlaxoSmithKline, according to Parliament Member Eva Lichtenberger, a Green Party representative from Austria.

Others said the measure would effectively take the software patent issue out of the reach of the EU's democratic controls.

"We are all for improvements to the European patent system, but we must continue the search for solutions within the framework of the EU," Maria Berger, the PES's spokeswoman for legal affairs, and former French prime minister Michel Rocard, said in a statement.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure also opposes the European Patent Litigation Agreement. On Thursday, it criticized McCreevy for failing to deliver clear answers about the measure to Parliament members.

"We have had enough of hidden agenda politics, it's time for the commissioner to deliver some facts," Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure President Pieter Hintjens said in a statement. European Patent Litigation Agreement "means higher costs for small businesses, and increased litigation risks. More U.S.-style litigation is not the solution. We just need a better patent office."

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.