Patents deal central to EU agenda

28 Jul 2005

When the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted down the Computer Implemented Inventions (CII) Directive earlier this month, the result was greeted with a mixture of dismay and relief by the Irish ICT industry. Dismay because long-awaited legislation to encourage research and development had fallen at the last hurdle; relief because the proposed directive was so altered from what was
originally proposed as to be virtually unrecognisable.

ICT Ireland, the lobby group for the tech sector within IBEC, is convinced that the amended legislation would have damaged Europe’s competitiveness. “It was better that the legislation didn’t get through in that form,” observes Kathryn Raleigh, director of ICT Ireland.
With the directive dead in the water, the question is where this leaves the pan-European protection of intellectual property rights for software and technological innovation in general. Hoping to solicit an answer to that question, ICT Ireland and the Irish Software Association invited Charlie McCreevy, Internal Markets Commissioner at the European Commission (pictured), to update their members at a special meeting at Confederation House in Dublin last week.

Addressing the gathering, McCreevy said the commission “had to respect” the democratic decision of the European Parliament and that no further attempts would be made to resurrect the doomed directive. Instead, he said, he would look to push through the Community Patent proposal.

The Community Patent is a pan-European patent system whereby individuals and companies can obtain a single patent throughout the EU. The cost of obtaining this patent would be less than the current cost of obtaining a European patent. In addition, Community Patent holders would benefit from far greater legal certainty, because disputes over interpretation would be heard before a single Community Patent Court with pan-EU jurisdiction. A European patent, on the other hand, can currently be challenged in each country in which it is valid.

With memories of the ill-fated CII Directive obviously still fresh in his mind, McCreevy made it clear, however, that he would only support legislation he was confident would succeed. “The commission has left its proposal on the table because the stakes are too high to throw in the towel. I’ll make one last push but only when the time is right,” he said.

McCreevy’s caution is well founded. The Community Patent’s journey through the labyrinthine legislative process has been painful to watch. Work on the patent actually began in the Seventies and various proposals were tabled sporadically until March 2003, when political agreement was finally reached on a proposal. However, a year later, under the Irish Presidency of the EU, the Competitiveness
Council failed to agree on the finer detail of the regulation, in particular on how to handle the translation of patent claims.

After that meeting of March 2004, McCreevy’s predecessor, EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, gravely commented that the decision left the Lisbon Agenda in tatters. “The failure to agree on the Community Patent undermines the credibility of the whole enterprise to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010.”

Despite this setback, McCreevy is clearly unwilling to give up on the initiative just yet. He shares Bolkestein’s view that without the patent in place, Europe will not be able keep up in the competitiveness race against other countries such as the US.

“As far as the economic climate is concerned, there is a way forward,” he said. “Despite sometimes near-militant resistance in one or two member states to economic reform, including measures to ramp up innovation across Europe, I remain confident that the flight from reality will in due course be reversed.”

McCreevy’s optimism may be admirable but with the CII Directive now defunct and the community patent still in limbo it will take the all of the commissioner’s powers of persuasion to broker a worthwhile deal and give European innovation the boost it needs.

By Brian Skelly