An EU vote on patents legislation has been delayed again, as the debate over the effect of intellectual property laws on software innovation continues.
The original EU directive on software patents was supported by large corporations, but was vehemently opposed by a range of academics, software developers and members of the open source community, who believed that the directive would stifle an open exchange of ideas in the EU and would ultimately discourage software innovation.
The bill that was approved by the EU Parliament on 24 September included 124 amendments, which limited intellectual property rights and antagonised many large corporations, who feel that strong intellectual property rights are a fundamental motivation for technical innovation. According to the Dow Jones newswire, the CEOs of a number of large European corporations, including Alcatel, Nokia, Siemens, Philips and Ericsson recently sent a letter to the European Union in which they criticised the revised bill and threatened to move more than €15 billion of R&D research out of Europe. The Council of Ministers vote, which was to take place on 27 November, has been postponed.
"The purpose of patents is to encourage innovation, so that you can create something, patent it, make money from it and use the money for further innovation," said Karen Murray, a barrister and lecturer on IT law at the National College of Ireland. "But the patents are published and are available for people who would like to enhance that innovation."
But there are fears among the software community that a large number of broad and ambiguous patents could be approved, which would turn generic technical functions into private property.
"The purpose of the directive is to clarify the existing situation," said Murray. "In order for an idea to be patented in the EU it must be a new idea, it must not be obvious to people who are technically competent, it must run on a machine and have a technical effect," Murray told ElectricNews.Net.
Murray pointed to Amazon.com's one-click patent, which is used to streamline on-line shopping, as an example of a software idea that has been patented.
The US has been more open to software patents in the past, but some of these patents are now being reviewed. On 13 November the US patent office announced that it would review Eolas's patent for the technology used to embed and run content within a Web page.
The patent has been publicly opposed by Tim Berner-Lee, head of the W3C, who claimed that Eolas was not the first to come up with this idea and that intellectual property laws run against the spirit of the Internet,which is based on free access to protocols and tools.
The founder of Eolas, Mike Doyle has accused the W3C of being motivated by an ideological dislike of software patents.