The directive on software patents is slated to be rubberstamped at a meeting of the Agricultural and Fisheries Commission tomorrow. The vote will mean the directive has been formally accepted by the European Council of Ministers and will go back to the European Parliament for a second reading.
This decision has caused widespread consternation among those opposed to the directive. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) says that the last minute tabling of the directive on this agenda is contrary to the Council's own rules of procedure. It has called on the ministers of the Agriculture and Fisheries commission to object to the late tabling. This could, it says, be enough to get it removed.
Attentive readers are probably wondering how it has come to pass that the fate one of the more technical items on Europe's agenda will be decided by a group of people more used to thinking about declining North Sea cod populations.
The Competition Commission - the group of ministers that would ordinarily be looking at the software patents directive - is not scheduled to meet again this year. Meanwhile, the six months of the Dutch presidency are coming to a close. The more they can get done in their term, the better they look. So the directive has been shunted onto the nearest available agenda with space.
But the real question is: does it matter who rubberstamps it? The current form of the directive was approved in May this year, and only needs to be formally accepted. Once it had that majority vote, it was all but certain it would pass to a second reading: although it is possible for a member state to official change its stance on a bill, it is rarely seen, and would be difficult, politically, for a country to do.
The European Council of Ministers is determined to see this legislation pass, and pass in its current form. Last week, ambassadorial representatives from each of the 25 member states agreed that the directive would sit on the ministerial agenda as an A item, one which may be voted through without discussion.
Any changes to the directive will have to be made by the European Parliament. Last time the MEPs looked at the bill there they made substantial changes to the draft, putting far more restrictions on what would or would not qualify as eligible for patenting. It is possible that they will be able to exert themselves again, and insist that at least some of the changes be reinstated. ®