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European Parliament to tackle software patents

Debate widens gulf between open source supporters and copyright holders

Deep divisions over the shape of a proposed directive on software patents are prompting European Parliamentarians to convene next Monday to try to narrow the range of changes to be tabled at a plenary meeting next month.

A spokeswoman at the European Parliament said the legal affairs committee, which is leading the debate on the proposed new law within the Parliament, will meet late on Monday to discuss the controversial draft directive, but a vote by the committee isn't likely right away.

"If the meeting goes well then there would be a vote at the next meeting of the committee," the official said.

The proposal for a law was drafted by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, early last year. It would allow patents only for software applications of a technical nature, and it would not permit patents on business methods. The US and Japan allow patents on a much wider range of software, and they both permit patents for business methods. Business methods include innovations like one-click purchasing, for which the online retailer Amazon.com received a patent in the US in 1999.

Amazon used the patent to get an injunction against use of a similar purchasing feature by rival Barnesandnoble.com, but an appeals court lifted that injunction last year.

There are deeply divergent views on the planned law both within the Parliament and among lobbyists. The open source and free software supporters are pitted against advocates for copyright holders in the battle to influence the shape of the planned law.

An official at the European Commission said the proposal "strikes a very fine balance" between the hugely divergent views on the subject, and warned that if the European Parliament upset that balance, the Commission might withdraw the proposed law.

"The Commission has taken account of the differing views on this subject in its proposal, and it would be very unhappy if the Parliament tabled amendments that tilted the proposed directive in either direction," said the official who refused to be named.

Lobbyists on both sides of the debate feel short-changed by the Commission's proposal, and are intensifying efforts to steer the European Parliament towards their views ahead of the first plenary session in June.

The Parliament shares responsibility for adopting the proposed law with the Council of national government ministers. The Council broadly supports the Commission's proposal, and it is likely to object to major changes proposed by the Parliament.

If the two houses cannot agree on a text the proposal for a law is dropped. The Commission can at any stage withdraw its proposal if it feels that the final version differs too much from its original text.


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