A crucial vote by Europe’s Council of Ministers over a change in European patent law has been delayed, pushing the controversial topic back to next spring.

The decision to delay the vote came after intense lobbying by large IT companies who asked the Council to reject the numerous amendments made to the directive on computer-implemented invention during debate at the European Parliament on 24 September this year.

If the Council had voted and rejected the amendments, it would have put it on a collision course with the Parliament. With the delay however, it will have plenty of time to consider informal representations and come up with what it hopes will be a compromise solution before the proposed law is sent back for voting.

The delay reflects the fierce and lengthy battle going on over what can and cannot be given a patent in Europe.

Europe has already rejected the open and heavily criticised patent system in place in the US and Japan, but an attempt to simplify and harmonise the patent system across Europe - started in 1997 - has pitched academics, software developers and small businesses against multi-national corporations.

In a remarkable feat of people-power, MEPs were persuaded in September to introduce over 100 amendments to the proposed patent directive with the aim of removing potential abuse of the system.

Software that has a “technical effect” would also have to jump through various other hoops before being granted a patent under the directive in its current form. This, say one side, will put a stop to wide-ranging and anti-competitive patents being used by big companies to monopolise markets and squash smaller competitors.

Big companies on the other hand claim the amendments prevent them from protecting their inventions and so will have a negative effect on innovation.

On 7 November, just a fortnight after the Parliament debate, the CEOs of Alcatel, Ericsson, Nokia, Phillips and Siemens sent a letter to the EC and Council saying that the amendments effectively ruined the patents they already had, with the effect of damaging competition in the market.

This was followed shortly afterwards by a similar letter by EICTA (a trade body consisting of just about every big IT company in existence, including Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Nortel, Samsung and the four companies in the earlier letter), stating that the Council should vote against the amendments.

Faced with upsetting Parliament on one hand and some of the world’s biggest companies on the other, the Council of Ministers decided to leave it alone for the time being.

It is only a matter of time before the whole thing kicks off again though. And it looks as though it may fall the multi-nationals way. European Parliamentary elections are due in June 2004, meaning that the patent issue will appear again at the start of a new term.

New MEPs may not be up to speed and many more will not want to rock the boat early on. President of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, Hartmut Pilch also told us he feared the new Parliament would be “more receptive to pressure” from the Council.

Since the Council of Ministers is far more easily accessible by large corporate lobbyists, the fight by academics, software developers and small businesses will be even harder next time round.

And while the body of evidence would appear to point to a more restricted patent law as the most effective way of encouraging competition and innovation (everyone’s stated claim for patent law), it may yet be that corporate power wins over this argument.