The EC has launched a round of consultations on protecting intellectual property, prompting fears of a renewed effort to introduce software patents in Europe.

Last year, an attempt to expand US and Japanese patents law into Europe faced severe opposition and was beaten down after a long politicial battle. The EC was broadly in favour of the allowing software to be patented, whereas the European Parliament was opposed.

The new consultations stem from the Commission, with EU internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy saying that good intellectual property rules are essential to stimulate innovation and encourage the development of new products. He admitted that he also wanted to make a unified patent system for the EU.

At the center of discussions will be whether to revive work on a European patent system for all 25 member states. Governments have been trying to agree upon rules for a Community patent since 2000, but progress has been blocked by the refusal of countries such as Germany and Spain to allow English to be the official language for applications. Both countries fear they will lose lucrative patent registration work if their right to issue patents in their national languages are not protected.

Austria, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, has said it will restart discussions on the Community patent in the coming months.

Members of the open-source software community warned that the new initiative could be an attempt to re-introduce patents for software, which they say will harm innovation and unfairly benefit big technology vendors. The Commission's announcement of consultations with industry lobbyists were "a definitive indication that our camp has to take action again," said Florian Müller, who led the successful campaign to block the so-called computer-implemented inventions directive.

The directive was rejected by members of the European Parliament last June after one of the most intensive lobbying campaigns in the EU’s history. The directive concerned only inventions using computer technology, while the Community patent would apply to all areas of technological innovation.

In a statement, Müller warned that unless the current proposal for a Community patent was changed to remove a clause saying that the European Patent Office (EPO) should apply the case law which it has developed, EU patent authorities would be "extremely likely to follow the EPO's law-bending approach and declare US-style software patents legal in the EU."

He added that it was "imperative" for the open source software movement to "influence the new debate on the community patent on a timely basis". Otherwise, it would be impossible to stop the avalanche of allowing software to be patented.

The Commission's consultation focuses on three major issues: the Community patent, how to improve the current patent system in the EU, and possible areas for harmonisation. The questionnaire is currently available in English, with French and German versions expected next week.

Interested parties have until 31 March. After analysing the results, the Commission will organise a seminar in Brussels to discuss the outcome in June. If the Commission decides that it needs to present new legislation, such as a revised version of the Community patent, it would do so after the summer.