A highly controversial bill on software patents faces a crucial vote in the European Parliament after a four-year struggle between small firms and technology giants.
Protesters voiced their opposition to to the law in Strasbourg Tuesday
The software patent bill, which will be put to vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, aims to give a boost to technological innovation in the European Union by giving greater legal protection to inventions relying on computers such as mobile telephones, washing machines and car braking systems.
Technology experts and software companies have been at loggerheads over how far patent protection should go.
Big tech companies are in favor of a patent system that would not only protect the invention running a computer program but the program itself as well. Small tech companies, however, want patents to cover only the invention running the program, allowing the idea and the functionality of the software to be used by others.
Until now, only the underlying programming code has been subject to copyright in Europe. That means that programmers could not reuse the code from other copyrighted software products, but could easily write their own code, which would imitate or improve the functionality of other programs.
A computer running Linux, a free-source operating system
The prospect of patents covering the underlying programming code is particularly worrying to backers of the so-called 'open source' movement, who are staunch supporters of the free exchange of ideas in software development.
The proposed EU bill would be similar to the US model of providing patent protection to software products. Of the 17,000 software patents, which are registered in the States each year, more than 3,000 are owned by the computer giant Microsoft.
The online reseller Amazon, for example, holds a patent to the so-called "1-click" checkout system, which enables users to shop online without repeatedly having to enter their passwords or credit card information. Because the 1-click-purchase is a patented technology, Amazon is entitled to impose licensing fees to anybody who wants to implement such a system on their website.
Protecting or stifling the software industry?
Logo of the European Patent Office
Opponents of the software patents believe that legal restrictions of this kind will increase the number of trivial patents, stifle creativity and harm the information technology industry in the long run.
"An agreement among all actors that software should not be patented, so providing an unequivocal definition in the directive (EU law) that guarantees this is clearly in the general interest," said Hans-Werner Müller, head of the UEAPME association representing small companies.
"The cacophony of misinformation and misleading spin from the large industry lobby in the run up to this vote has obscured the general consensus on preventing the patenting of pure software," he added.
The wind, however, appears to be blowing in favor of the big groups after a parliamentary committee rejected last month proposed amendments to the bill which would have restricted patents to the invention underlying a computer program.
Those in favor of patents for programs, on the other hand, acknowledge that victory is not a foregone conclusion.
"The game is not over. The defeated amendments could find a second wind on the 6th of July," said former parliament president Pat Cox.