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EU ministers approve new software patent draft law
Tobias Buck and Raphael Minder, FT Syndication Service

          BRUSSELS: Controversial European Union proposals setting out a new patent regime for the software industry cleared an important hurdle last week, when EU industry ministers broke a 10-month stalemate and voted in favour of the draft law.
Their decision sets the scene for a fierce battle with the European parliament, which is deeply sceptical of the law but which must back the proposal before it can take effect.
The legislation has already caused a deep rift within the high-tech industry: while large companies such as Nokia, Philips and Siemens are strongly in favour, smaller companies and individual software developers are opposed. In its present form, the law -- often described as the software patents directive -- would allow companies to register a patent for software that makes a "technical contribution". But critics argue that the text is too generous, and would also allow patents on "pure" software such as Microsoft's Windows operating system. They say such patents would prevent developers from building on widely used lines of code, which would stifle innovation and concentrate patents in the hands of big corporations.
Supporters of the law dismiss such fears. They warn that companies will stop investing in research and development if they cannot win protection for their inventions.
Member states had informally agreed to support the law last May, but Poland repeatedly refused to honour that deal, delaying formal adoption by 10 months.
While the latest vote breaks the deadlock among EU member states, the battle over the directive is certain to go on. It now requires approval by the European parliament, which last month demonstrated its hostility to the proposal by calling for the legislative process to begin afresh.
But following the latest vote, parliament now has only four months to back the law, reject it, or table amendments.
Michel Rocard, a French socialist member of the European parliament, said: "Nobody wants to reject outright the text, since we need to have new legislation. But there is very probably a majority willing to push through amendments. This will be a very important debate."
Monica Frassoni, a leading Green Member of European Parliament (MEP), said: "Ministers have ignored the will of the parliament, [which] unanimously spoke out against the adoption of the directive. This has created a serious institutional conflict."
Florian Muller, campaign manager for NoSoftwarePatents, called on parliament to take a tough line. He said: "In its present form, the law would benefit only big companies with their giant patent arsenals and businesses that prefer litigation to product development."
But Mark Macgann, director general of the Eicta technology business association, welcomed the move as "highly important to the European high-tech sector and economy as a whole". He added: "As an industry we well strengthen our efforts to show that patents are good for innovation, good for the economies of Europe and good for consumers."
Eicta represents companies such as Microsoft, SAP, Sony, IBM, Nokia, Thomson, Apple and EADS.


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