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An activism update from Europe

Since my last article for LWN on software patents, a lot has happened. Weeks of speculation and frenzied lobbying culminated in the EU Council passing a version of the software patent directive that permits software patents; the FFII has continued to lobby on and discuss the Council's position, whilst preparing for the EU elections and the new MEPs; and the Union for the Public Domain has begun to lobby the BBC to release its archives under a Creative Commons license. And as usual, there's plenty for European hackers to do!

Software patent news

To begin with software patents, on the 18th May the EU Council of Ministers voted on the controversial software patent directive, passing with a narrow majority a version that, according to the FFII, ensures that "software and business methods ... are ... to be treated as patentable inventions" (source). This version of the directive removed all of the important amendments made by Parliament in September 2003 that explicitly stated that software and business methods cannot be patented. But despite this, many ministers continued to reassure the public, and those considering rejecting the directive, that it would not allow these things to be patented, describing it as a "compromise". The key to understanding this dispute is that without all of the amendments passed by Parliament in September 2003, the directive could still allow software patents. But the Council's compromise scrapped the first four amendments present in the Parliament's version, and instead made a weak version of the fifth amendment that stated that a technical contribution must be "new".

One member of the Committee of Permanent Representatives explicitly described it as a "compromise between Microsoft and Linux." When I talked to Dr Caroline Lucas MEP (Green, UK), she commented that:

Software patenting represents a serious threat to creativity and the right of computer programmers to make a living practising their art. For the Council of Ministers to completely disregard the views of the Parliament, the EU's only directly-elected institution, makes a mockery of the EU's democratic credentials.

It is worth noting that the Irish Presidency of the EU, due to expire next year, is sponsored by none other than Microsoft, amongst other companies. Furthermore, "almost 35% of Ireland's registered companies totaling 150,000 are non-resident" (source) due to tax exemption laws. "Over 40% of all PC package software and 60% of business applications software sold in Europe is produced in Ireland. US companies such as Microsoft, Lotus, Claris, Digital, Oracle, IBM and Novell contribute significantly to this growth" (source). It is clear where the interests of the Irish government lie.

So where do we go from here? The Parliament has already voted against software patents, and the Council has voted for software patents. In June, the Council must formally adopt their position, which is likely (but not certain) to happen (it may get delayed, or not happen at all). Assuming it does, the Parliament must then vote again on the directive, and pass their version with an absolute majority to overrule the decision of the Council. So the next step for activists - by which I mean any EU citizen with a pen, phone and/or e-mail client - is to get back to lobbying MEPs.

It is, or was, the EU elections on June 10th. If you're an EU citizen reading this in time, make sure you go to the polling booth, and bear in mind the MEPs' positions on software patents when you cross the boxes. You can find out how they voted in September with this handy page.

Once the election results come in, we'll need to start lobbying our new representatives, and continue with those that held their seats, to ensure Parliament votes against software patents again. When the directive comes up for a vote (perhaps by the end of this year), it will need an absolute majority to pass, whereas in the previous vote it only needed a majority from those actually voting. This means that we need to persuade more MEPs to actually vote, and more to vote against software patents. The most important thing is to send off that first letter, and to then follow it up. When writing your letter, you might find it useful to look at this guide to the key arguments, and also this page to find your MEPs' contact details. If they disagree, try to respond and show why they are wrong; if they agree with you, ask them to sign the FFII's Call for Action II.

If you've got a little more spare time (i.e. half an hour), and you'd like to do more than just write a letter, there's a nice project that you can get involved in that will introduce you to the world of lobbying proper. It involves phoning MEPs and asking them some questions, then sending the results back to the FFII, so they can build up a database both of MEPs' voting records and their stated positions. To join in this project, first read this handy guide, and then find the questionnaire itself here. Though the project started only as an elections tool, it will still be useful leading up to the vote, and it gives you a good chance to really make a big difference with a small amount of your time.

You should also try to contact your national government representatives. They will often have a lot of influence over the minsters who sit in the Council, and over their party's MEPs. Again, contact them by letter, and follow up appropriately. If they're supportive, ask them to sign the FFII's Call for National Governments.

We defeated software patents in Parliament last year. If we fail this time, we will not only see large corporations using patents against free software projects increasingly aggressively, but we will also miss an opportunity to affect the outcome of the debate in the US. A vote against software patents in Europe would send a strong message to legislators in the US, and provide a huge boon to the EFF's Patent Busting Project.

BBC Archives

In other news, there has been some development surrounding the BBC's promise to give the public full access to its archives online. When originally announced, then-director general Greg Dyke suggested that they would open up the full archives, but so far the only concrete plans have been to make available thousands of three minute clips from documentaries. After a launch reception in London, which Lawrence Lessig and the BBC Archive's project leader attended, the Friends of Creative Archive have launched a campaign to have the full archives released under a Creative Commons license.

The argument behind this position is a familiar one to anyone who follows Lessig's work, but at the risk of boring you, I'll run over them briefly. Innovation, particularly amongst more creative types like musicians, artists and filmmakers, depends upon being able to draw on culture and past creations. Culture is not just about passively consuming and creating entirely new works, but about remixing and building upon past creations. The more culture there is in the public domain, the more potential there is for new and interesting work to be made. So, the activists argue, as the BBC is funded by license payers for the benefit of the British public, it ought to release its archives for the benefit of the British public.

Having an open archive of this kind would provide two special benefits to the free software community. First, it would provide a large source of DRM-free, standards-compliant media so that whatever the rest of the industry does, we will always have a decent media resource available. Secondly, it will send out a strong signal throughout the industry and to governments that the principles of the free culture and free software movements should be taken seriously. It would be much harder for the media, hardware and software monopolists to impose proprietary standards on us if organisations as large as the BBC were publicly doing the opposite. Combined with the recent work on the Dirac codec, it could be the start of a healthy alliance between the BBC and the free software community.

The creation of a free creative archive seems like an obviously good idea, and one would hope that it would strike the BBC that way, but at the moment they've not had any input from the public on this issue. So if you'd like to encourage the BBC to adopt a Creative Commons license, rather than restricting access through DRM and nasty licenses, consider signing the Friends' letter here.

This article was published by Linux Weekly News (LWN)