Free Software Advocates Gear Up for EU Patent Policy Battle

The European Commission will hold a public hearing on Wednesday to discuss the future of patent policy for the European Union.

How patents are awarded continues to be a critical issue of debate in Europe. The European Patent Office (EPO) has warned that innovation is at risk if national governments continue to delay adoption of an EU patent system. Members of the free software camp vehemently oppose the introduction of this type of patent process, however.

Meanwhile, according to the EPO, at least 63,650 patent applications were made by EU member states, future members and candidate countries in 2005.

EU Patent War II

The EC is seeking greater protection for patent holders, but member states so far have refused to endorse a proposal for an EU-wide patent system, a draft of which was first presented in 2000. The public hearing Wednesday will revisit the controversial issue.

The hearing comes in the wake of a public consultation the commission launched in January to collect stakeholders’ views on how to improve the EU patent system. The commission plans to issue a report to summarize the outcome of the consultation.

The public hearing could be the genesis of a new battle over European patent policy. Just over a year after the European Parliament dismissed the “directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions,” the same opposing camps are at loggerheads again.

The Combatants

The new fight over European patent policy centers on the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA), a proposal for an international treaty that would establish a new European Patent Court.

Representatives from large companies, including Nokia and lobbying organizations with ties to Microsoft, are expected to demand the EPLA’s ratification. Representatives of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure and NoSoftwarePatents campaign founder Florian Mueller will speak out strongly against the EPLA.

EU internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy is determined to back the EPLA, Mueller believes. If the proposed EPLA were to come into effect in its current form and shape, he said, it would undo the defensive victory Mueller’s campaign scored in 2005.

Critical Measures

“This is an even bigger battle than the last one,” Mueller told LinuxInsider. “The software patent directive would have made software patents more enforceable in Europe, and that would have been bad enough, but the EPLA would effectively result in more enforceable software patents and encourage patent litigation in Europe.”

In his speech, Mueller plans to argue that the EPLA is just another attempt to give software and business-method patents a stronger legal foundation in Europe. He will also point to an expected doubling — or even tripling — of the total cost of litigation per patent dispute.

“This will probably turn into a multi-year political fight,” Mueller predicted. “If there’s enough support from companies that are concerned about the effect software patents could have on their business, I’m ready to make my contribution once again.”

Neither Nokia nor Microsoft executives were immediately available for comment.

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