On 24 September 2003, after 19 months of consideration, the European
Parliament voted on the software patent directive, and made substantial
amendments to exclude patents on pure software and business
methods. However, regular rows between the European Council and Parliament;
the Council ignoring many of the Parliaments amendments; and the Committee
for Legal Affairs of the European Parliament's (JURI) subterfuge tactics to
try and push it through, mean that pure software patents in Europe are
still a scary possibility
Restart the process?
Under the co-decision rules for European lawmaking, the European
Parliament, Commission and the Council all have to agree to the text of the
directive before it can come into force. However at this stage in the
legislative process (it is now at its second reading), if the European
Council continues to ignore the Parliament's amendments, it will be
extremely difficult for the European Parliament to keep them.
An absolute majority (two thirds of all MEPs, or at least 367 votes) is
required in a second reading for each Council amendment the Parliament
wishes to reject. Every MEP absent in the plenary chamber that day and
every abstention vote would count in favor of the Council proposal. In
2004, the University of Duisburg-Essen released a study which showed that
on average only 56.2% of Italian MEPs took part in the 4,437 roll call
votes held in European Parliament between 1999 and 2003. The most diligent
MEPs are from Luxembourg with a presence of 85.2%. We would, in other
words, have to encourage an abnormally high turnout of MEPs for an issue
that struggles to capture their imaginations.
This is even more worrying when you consider that a majority of the MEPs
currently in parliament were elected in 2004 and did not even participate
in the first reading of the directive. Ten new countries, with no previous
say in the directive, also joined the EU in 2004. If the council position
is officially announced, the Parliament will be forced to vote on the
second reading within three to four months. This would give a relatively
new Parliament little opportunity for discussion and consultation, and
could lead to software patent loopholes if critical amendments were left
On the 2nd of February, JURI is set to decide whether or not to restart the
procedure. This decision has only been possible because of a motion, signed by 61
members of the European Parliament, calling for a new first reading of the
software patent directive. Poland has also helped significantly by
repeatedly postponing the adoption of the Council's software patent
agreement, but can only do this for so long before other states pressure
them on issues more important to the Polish economy.
A complete restart is one of the best (and only) feasible solutions
left. As there are no absolute majority requirements in first readings, it
would be easier for European Parliament to pass amendments. The Council
would have to have a new first reading, canceling their current
pro-software patent position and putting pressure on them to avoid adopting
a similar stance so contrary to the will of Parliament. A restart would
also enable new member states to have their say from the beginning, making
it a more democratic directive.
What can you do?
The only reason we don't have software patents in Europe is because of
the efforts of activists protesting and lobbying against them. In Europe,
according to the European Patent Office, already 7% of applicants hold more
than 50% of patents. If we don't want to go down a path whereby a start-up
or open source company with no patents will be forced to pay whatever price
larger corporations choose to impose, we must get out there and fight to
stop it happening. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Help spread the word about software patents by joining the Web
Demo. Register your site at http://demo.ffii.org/.
- Contact a member of JURI with your concerns about software patents and
your support for a restart of the software patent directive. The JURI
committee has members from many different European member states, and
these MEPs are best contacted by people from their own countries, since
they will be much more likely to respond and raise your concerns within
JURI. Find your MEPs here.
- Contact your local MEPs to lobby members of JURI on your behalf. If you
don't have time to seriously lobby a member of JURI, get your local MEP
to do it for you. MEPs are supposed to represent their constituents, so
let them help you get your message across. Find out who they are here.
- Visit European Parliament in Brussels to lobby MEPs (especially the JURI
committee) about software patents. Ask for more information on this mailing
- If you are too busy to do any of the above, you might consider donating
to organizations like the FFII and the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, who are
trying to ensure that software patent legislation is compatible with
small and medium enterprises as well as free or open source
software. Large software companies employ people to do nothing but
patent lobbying, so we need to support those people who are opposing
them as much as possible.
(Edward Griffith-Jones contributed to the writing of this article).
to post comments)