In Europe, patent olive branch--or threat?

European Commission says it will let controversial directive die if the European Parliament disapproves. But some say it's a power play.

Matthew Broersma Special to CNET News
3 min read
The European Commission says it will let the controversial software-patent directive die, if enough opposition to it is mustered in the European Parliament. But some see this as a veiled threat.

If the European Parliament does decide to kill the directive, there will be no new proposal from the Commission, Charlie McCreevy, commissioner for the Internal Market, told a parliament plenary session on Tuesday evening.

"You can, of course, reject or substantially amend the proposal," he said. "If the Parliament decides to reject it, then the Commission will respect your wishes. I will not propose a new directive." The European Parliament considers legislation proposed by the Commission.

McCreevy's statement has been seen as a veiled threat by some observers. The Parliament has been pushing the Commission to submit a new proposal on software patenting, but McCreevy's comments make it clear that the EU will either get a directive based on the current text, or nothing at all.

"It will indeed be difficult to get this rejected, because many will believe that there should be some directive at the end of the process," said Florian Mueller, head of the NoSoftwarePatents.com campaign.

Critics, including prominent open-source leaders, say the directive would open the doors to U.S.-style software patents in Europe. Software patents would be an advantage to large companies with patent stockpiles but would make it difficult for open-source projects and smaller companies to compete, industry observers say.

The directive is supported by multinational IT companies such as IBM and Microsoft, which say it provides companies with valuable patent protection.

The Council of the European Union, also known as the Council of Ministers, formally endorsed the draft directive on the "patentability of computer-implemented inventions" on Monday morning, despite a resolution from Parliament asking for the legislative process to be restarted.

The national governments of several countries, including Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark, have formally expressed their criticism of the current version of the directive, which dates from May 2004, and supported a restart.

Protesters in Brussels
Industry associations CompTIA, the Business Software Alliance and the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association have expressed their approval of the Council of the European Union's endorsement.

Adoption of the draft as the Council of the European Union's Common Position (click here for PDF) means the directive will return to the Parliament for a second reading, with a limit of three months to decide on changes or a rejection. Changes are difficult to ratify in a second reading, requiring the support of more than half the Parliament's members, regardless of attendance.

Austrian MEP Eva Lichtenberger said the process was on the verge of turning into a "power struggle" between Council, Commission and Parliament, rather than a consideration of the issues. "The text of 18 May no longer has a majority in its present form. The objections of the states have remained unconsidered until now," she said in the plenary meeting.

McCreevy acknowledged there was now substantial opposition to the current version of the directive. "I know a new wind is blowing on this. This is reflective of the position expressed in the Council and the Parliament, and the Commission will take account of this and respect this," he said.

Audio recordings of the plenary session were made available by several Web sites. Links to the recordings can be found on the site of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.