Big technology groups such as Nokia, Siemens and Philips scored a significant victory on Monday night, when a key European parliament committee rejected plans that would have curtailed their ability to win patents for their inventions.

In a narrow and keenly awaited decision, the parliament's legal affairs committee threw out proposals for a sweeping overhaul of a controversial European Union proposal known as the software patents directive.

Most importantly, they voted down the overwhelming majority of amendments that would have made it more difficult for companies to win patent protection for software-related inventions.

The vote still has to be confirmed by the entire parliament in early July, although MEPs tend to follow the decision ofthe committee. EU member states would then have to give their approval for the draftlaw, though no-one expects national governments to put up resistance.

Mark MacGann, president of Eicta, an association of technology groups that support patents, said: “European industry is satisfied with the outcome of today's vote. We will now urge the entire parliament to follow suit. It is a pretty good result.”

Eicta's members include companies such as EADS, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, SAP, Siemens, Sony and Sun.

Monday's vote marks a turning point in the protracted battle over the law, which has split the software industry and sparked severe recriminations.

Big information technology companies are in favour of a generous patent regime that allows companies to register patents for a wide range of software-related inventions. They argue that intellectual property rights provide incentives for companies to innovate and invest in research and development.

Businesses with a valuable portfolio of patents also fear that a more restrictive regime would remove patent protection from possibly tens of thousands of existing inventions.

But their opponents many of which are smaller software companies or individual developers have argued that patents tend to hurt smaller market players by concentrating patents in the hands of a few big groups.

Smaller companies are particularly concerned that the new directive might allow patents on “pure” software simple lines of code that make up, for example, Microsoft's Windows operating system. Some argue that such patents could severely restrict innovation because they would prevent developers from building on widely used lines of codeto create new applications and programmes.

Though the draft directive explicitly excludes patents on pure software, critics feel the proposal's language is too hazy to exclude that threat. A large number of members of the European parliament had previously voiced similar fears and many had believed yesterday's vote would go differently.

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