Tuesday, March 08, 2005

That software "stitch-up"

Following our posting yesterday on the software patent, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is on the case today for The Daily Telegraph with a piece headed: "Brussels accused of failing to halt software 'stitch-up'".

According to Ambrose, small business groups and MEPs have attacked the law, calling it a stitch-up by big firms that would stifle innovation in Europe.

But, with critics warning that smaller firms without the legal firepower to fight patent disputes will be shut out of the sector, it is good to see that the British government is reverting to form, with science minister Lord Sainsbury playing down the measure. Presumably after having conferred with Peter Hain, he called it "a tidying up exercise" that would offer greater legal clarity.

One of the many who would disagree is Michel Rocard, MEP, the former French prime minister. He is now leading the campaign against the law, said it would have "immense" consequences across a business that generates some £20 billion a year in revenue. He claimed the text offered virtually "no limits" on what could be patented.

Another unhappy bunny is Austrian MEP Dr Maria Berger who has accused single market commissioner Charlie McCreevy of "rash collusion with Microsoft". She claimed that McCreevy, the former Irish finance minister, had tailored the legislation to suit Ireland, which depends on Microsoft as its biggest single taxpayer.

However, with the “common position” agreed by the Council – unless it is challenged in the ECJ – the law goes back to the EU parliament for a second reading. There, under EP procedures, the scope for amendment is very limited and if the MEPs wish to reject it Rule 61 requires “the votes of a majority of the component Members of Parliament”.

In English, that means that an absolute majority of 732 MEPs must vote the measure down – a total of 367. Thus, even if a vote is won by a majority of the MEPs present during a session, that will not be valid unless the votes cast against reach the magic 367 figure.

The vote can, of course, easily be rigged – the most simple way being to schedule the vote for a Thursday evening in Strasbourg, when most of the MEPs have gone home.

Thus, it looks very much as if this divisive law is set for final approval.

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