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More on EU Patents - The Storm is Growing
Thursday, July 08 2004 @ 07:30 AM EDT

Every time you hear something new about software patents in Europe, it gets more interesting. The International Herald Tribune is now reporting that when the Netherlands withdrew its support last week for the Directive on Software Patents, it really started something:

"The adoption of a European Union law on software patents could be in doubt after accusations of missteps and mishaps during a May 18 meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council in Brussels.

"Officials in a number of European countries say that votes cast by ministers during the meeting to hammer out political differences did not reflect the position of their governments.

"Among the accusations: that the Dutch minister misinformed his national Parliament about the directive’s status; that a stand-in for the Danish minister was coerced into a ‘‘yes’’ vote; that the German minister accepted last-minute changes to amendments made by his own country that were contrary to the wishes of the government; and that the Polish government, which originally abstained, was not asked for its opinion when the final agreement was recorded."

The article says:

  • The storm has spread to national parliaments in Germany and Denmark and is provoking questions about the EU directive in Poland and Portugal
  • The Competitiveness Council — an economics advisory group that is part of the EU Council of Ministers -- is alleged to have added last-minute amendments and presented them as a ‘‘political compromise’’ when they actually would legalize software patents, something the earlier vote by the national governments on the proposal had not permitted, and that it falsely claimed that the current version of the directive is favorable to small and midsize companies.
  • Despite the Dutch Parliament voting to change its vote to abstention, the economics affairs minister, Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, is saying that he doesn't have to. This is the same individual who has been accused of leading the Dutch Parliament into believing that the last-minute amendments were being rubber-stamped by the Council of Ministers. "Mr. Brinkhorst doesn’t feel obligated to change the vote from a ‘yes’ to an abstention in order to take into account the concerns expressed by the Dutch Parliament,’’ said Joop Nijssen, a spokesman for the Dutch EU mission in Brussels who spoke on behalf of the minister." Instead he said the minister plans to ask the EU to "take the Dutch Parliament’s concerns into consideration" when the directive comes up for a final vote.

I so hate politics. But I knew many of you would be interested in hearing about this.

You can read the Motion passed by the Dutch Parliament, thanks to FFII. I don't personally see what confusion there could be as to their intention:

". . . considering that the minister of Economic Affairs misinformed the Parliament about the nature of the planned proposal shortly before the Council meeting, as a result of which the Parliament was unable to fulfil its controlling task as it should;

"considering that a directive about the patentability of software must lead to harmonisation of legislation within the EU in order to prevent excesses with regard to the patentability of software;

"EXPRESSES it's [the Parliament's] opinion that the political agreement as reached at the Competitiveness Council of 17 and 18 May 2004 offered insufficient guarantees to prevent excesses with regard to software patentability;

"CALLS UPON the government to convey this opinion of the Parliament to the other EU member states;

"CALLS UPON the government to act according to this opinion in further discussions of the Council proposal, and from this present moment, abstain from supporting the current Council proposal"

Apparently what happened was Brinkhort sent a letter that misled Parliament, and now the Secretary of State says it was actually the computer's fault:

"In a letter to parliament before the council, Brinkhorst had stated an agreement between the European Parliament and the Council. This was misinforming the parliament. . . . Secretary of state Van Gennip, who represented Minister Brinkhorst at the meeting, claimed the misinformation regarding the agreement between the EP and the Council was caused by a bad wording due to a 'word processing error'."

Of course. HAL went beserk again. I think the Dutch can't hold a candle to the US when it comes to computer excuses, though. Here's the winner, hands down.

Cordis News is adding:

"Indeed, proposals have been introduced in parliaments in other EU countries, including Germany, to reflect on a change in their own votes.

"This change of circumstances could lead to a new vote by the Competitiveness Council to invalidate its previous decision, thus making software ineligible for patenting."

Macworld UK says "Poland, Portugal, Germany and Denmark were among the member states that believe their opinions were incorrectly reported."

How many votes need to change to turn the vote around? Six, according to this report in PCPro, but each country gets more than one vote, so one country with six or more votes could turn this vote around:

"Dieter Van Uytvanck, spokesman of FFII Netherlands, said: 'This political signal reaches much further than just The Netherlands. We hope that other European countries that also have their doubts about the proposal of the Council will also withdraw their support, so that the current proposal no longer has a majority. The historic precedent has been set now.'

"Van Uytvanck said that just five more votes would break the majority in favour of the Ministers' draft proposal. Each country has more than one vote. He said Portugal alone would be able to topple the draft if it decided to abstain."

Why are so many small and medium companies opposed to software patents?

"Critics of software patents say that they disadvantage small companies and discourage innovation as software developers cannot be expected to be aware of potential patent infringements when developing new products.

"Big companies can build large patent portfolios and cross-license with each other, but can also use these patents to block smaller rivals out of the market by demanding high licence fees or pursuing litigation.

"Furthermore, critics say software patents are often described too loosely, allowing them to be used to in a broad and unjust manner. For example, instead of patenting a concrete invention such as a particular bridge design, you might be granted a patent on 'a method to get from one side to another', which you could use against people that make anything that could be used to cross a divide."

Many large companies, including Nokia, Siemens, Alcatel, Ericsson, and Phillips, support software patents in Europe. Natch.

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