New problems with the EU's ill-starred bid to harmonise software patents pose tough questions for the EU as a whole, as well as for inventors of computer applications.

Exactly three years after the European Commission proposed a directive on patentability of computer-implemented inventions - to bring order to more than a decade of national divergence over what is patentable and what is not - legal clarity seems as far away as ever. aSupporters and critics of the proposal remain sharply opposed.

The European Parliament attached such importance to maximising free access to software that it has - say supporters of the proposal - emptied the text of all substance, removing virtually all legal force from software patents. The big players in the software industry have accused the Parliament of alarmist behaviour, and even of dishonesty.

Hesitations among member states - and particularly Poland - have delayed a Council decision. A fragile agreement was reached in May 2004 on a compromise close to the views of the Commission and the industry. But Poland's last-minute objections at the end of the year prevented its finalisation.

The hold-up in the Council has given the critics of the proposal a unique opportunity to bring the legislative procedure to a halt. Some 60 MEPs, including a strong Polish contingent...

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