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The future of controversial European Union legislation that would allow for some software patents was in doubt Thursday after the Polish government switched sides, saying the directive could hurt small and medium-sized businesses. Polish Minister of Scientific Research and Information Technology Michal Kleiber said his office would seek to reopen debate in the EU on the extent of patenting that should be allowed for computer programs. “Inventions of which computer programs are an integral part should be patented,” he said in a statement late Wednesday. But the program itself should not be patentable unless it is new and has a direct “technological input” into whatever equipment is it part of, he said. He said the directive “in its present form” could harm the interests of small and medium-sized businesses, which complain it would stifle research and innovation. Backers of the directive, including the EU’s head office, insist it does contain limits to prevent a “drift” toward a U.S.-style system, which allows patenting of business methods or computer programs such as Amazon.com Inc.’s “one-click” shopping technique. Opponents dispute that, however, and welcomed Poland’s shift. Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian Green in the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, said Poland had consulted with experts from the Polish patent office as well as private industry, including Sun Microsystems Inc., Novell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp. and others. “They concluded that the … present proposal would make all software potentially patentable,” she said. “This is exactly the kind of scenario that our group has denounced from the beginning of this debate.” Ministers from the 25 EU countries reached initial agreement on the directive in May after stripping out amendments added by the European Parliament for more restrictive language. EU Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein said then that Parliament’s version went “beyond what was required to set the right balance between rewarding inventors for their efforts and allowing competitors to build on these inventions.” Big European equipment makers like Nokia Corp., Ericsson Inc., Siemens AG, Philips Electronics NV Holding Co. and Alcatel had warned that billions in research and development spending would be wasted if they were denied access to patent protection. As passed, the directive would allow software that is part of a mechanical device — such as a mobile phone — to be patented. A spokesman for the EU presidency said the directive was being translated and should be ready for formal adoption by governments in early December. He said it would be “a bit strange” for Poland to try to reopen debate at the ministerial level at this stage, but said the directive could come under renewed fire when it goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading. “The Parliament could theoretically speaking reject the whole proposal. Then we would start from scratch again,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “But that’s in the hands of the European Parliament.” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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