Trade ministers have paved the way for European firms to apply for patents on software, but critics have warned that this could halt innovation.
Last week in Brussels, the Competitiveness Council, part of the European Council of Ministers, rejected proposals placing rigorous limits on software patents. The matter now goes back to the European Parliament for ratification.
Supporters argue that the decision safeguards the future of software development in Europe, protecting firms against unauthorised use of their technology.
"It is nothing more than basic common sense to make sure that inventions are not excluded from patent protection simply because they use computer software," said Fritz Bolkestein, internal market commissioner, in a statement.
Both large and small developers can expect investment into research and development to be protected through the decision, according to John Higgins, director general of industry lobby group Intellect.
"We consider the decision to be a helpful step towards the goal of a harmonised and coherent approach to patent protection," he said.
But opponents insist that the decision could be followed by a deluge of patents, which would stifle innovation and make it impossible for areas of software development - such as open source - to share ideas.
Copyright is a more appropriate mechanism than patenting for controlling software rights, because it is not as open to large developers abusing their power, according to lobby group the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.
But Bolkenstein's statement added: "The European Commission has always been committed to making sure that patents cannot be used to squeeze out legitimate competition or to prevent others getting fair access to technology and ideas."
The European Parliament has for many months been considering whether or not software should be patentable.
Last September, members of the European Parliament approved proposals enforcing strict rules on software patents, but the decision by the Competitiveness Council last week has removed these clauses.
The matter now will go back before the European Parliament later this year, where it is required to gain majority support. If it does not, the Council and Parliament have six weeks to thrash out an agreement, or the proposals will be dropped entirely.
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