The push to unify Europe's patent laws collapsed on Tuesday, washing years of work and compromise down the drain. The proposed directive, a hotly-debated matter in recent months, sought to reduce the costs involved in the patent process and to unify Europe's disparate patent laws into a single code. The proposed law was a central plank in the Lisbon Agenda, which aims to make Europe the most competitive economic zone in the world by 2010.
After weeks of closed-door negotiations, enterprise ministers from across Europe concluded on Tuesday that an agreement on the new directive could not be reached. As part if its EU presidency, Ireland spearheaded a drive to push the proposed law through, led by Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Harney TD.
"This is very disappointing given the huge efforts that have been made over many years," Harney said to the Irish Times. It is understood that The Netherlands, which assumes the EU Presidency in July, told the Tanaiste that it would not seek to revive negotiations on the matter in the second half of the year.
In the end, it seems that differences in opinion over the number of languages that patents could be secured in are what killed off the proposed directive. Twenty of the EU's 25 member states voted in favour of the most recent draft of the legislation, while Germany, France, Spain and Portugal voted against it and Italy abstained.
But the demise of the draft directive may not put an end to the furore over EU patent laws, after the ministers on Tuesday managed to agree to a proposal that will give companies patent protection for certain types of software. Consensus was reached on the proposed Computer-Implemented Inventions directive, which allows companies in Europe to protect software, but stops short of protection for business methods, such as Amazon.com's "one-click" e-shopping service.
In fact, this proposed law has been a matter of intense argument - and public demonstrations - with detractors saying the directive will stifle software R&D among small businesses. Those in favour of the law, a list that includes many large corporations such as Philips and Nokia, argue that tighter software patent laws are necessary to protect innovation.
When the software directive first passed through the European Parliament last Autumn - amidst great dissent - several amendments were tacked on that sought to ease worries that the law would suppress R&D among small businesses. But it is understood that ministers stripped many of these amendments out on Tuesday night, and now the draft legislation will return to the European Parliament for re-approval later this year. In that reading of the directive, no new amendments can be added, but previously introduced changes can be reintroduced.