Europe's ministers are planning to push ahead with controversial patent legislation despite a vote on Wednesday by MEPs to restart the process. The decision will set the two decision-making bodies of the EU at loggerheads.
Nicolas Schmit, deputy foreign minister of Luxembourg, which is currently chairing Council of Ministers meetings, said yesterday that he would ask the body to formally adopt the much-disputed draft directive on patents at a meeting on 17 February.
His statement came after Parliament's legal affairs committee had voted 19-2 in favour of asking the Commission to withdraw the directive and rethink it.
Opponents of the legislation say the proposed law would allow so-called pure software - code or algorithms not necessarily incorporated into hardware devices - to be patented. Up to now it has not been permitted in the EU. Critics also point to the confused and legalistic situation in the US as proof that an expansion of patent laws would have a detrimental effect.
Restarting the process for the patent directive would provide breathing space to carry out assessments of its impact.
If the normal legal process were to advance, the European Parliament will still be able to propose changes to the legislation to address its concerns about the impact of the new rules.
UK Labour Member of Parliament Arlene McCarthy, who was the directive's proposer, said that the Parliament would react very strongly at attempts to ignore their views. "It's within the Presidency's prerogative but they should bear in mind they'll have a very rough ride in second reading from the European Parliament," she warned.
Parliament's previous attempts to insert safeguards to prevent patent rules being extended to pure software were rejected by the Council.
No one is sure where the dispute will go from here. Government ministers have been heavily lobbied by large IT companies who stand to benefit most from the legislation, while MEPs have been heavily lobbied by open-source advocates and smaller software companies, who stand to lose the most. Despite continued pressure over two years, the Council has refused to budge, and shows no signs of doing so again. Meanwhile, the Parliament has grown increasingly strong-willed. A battle, were it to occur, could be a bloody one.
One indication of the precarious and murky situation came from the EU Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy who said after Schmit's announcement yesterday that he was keeping "all his options open".