I went to the FFII demonstration against software patents in Europe last year in Brussels. Despite some success—the European Parliament has repeatedly rejected the patentability of software—the European Commission, apparently awed by corporate behemoths, continues to attempt to bring in the unwanted, unneeded and harmful software patents. It’s going our way at the moment, but I get the feeling that, no matter how many times they get knocked back, they are going to keep trying to bring software patents in, even if it takes them a hundred times before they succeed.

It’s profoundly depressing that there was a need for another demonstration this year. An so I turned out on this bitterly cold morning along with a few hundred others to agitate against software patents—and, in effect, for self-preservation. There is no doubt that for all but the big players—who, arguably do not need state support—and of course the patent lawyers, software patents would be a barrier to innovation for European developers, just as they have been elsewhere in the world.

It was fun to walk, to shout against the EU “banana republic” (a quote from one of the Luxembourg presidency representatives that must surely be haunting him now) and to see how even normally mild-mannered computer programmers could be lured from their nocturnal haunts for an good-natured morning demonstration.

There’s a really illuminating interview with European deputy (MEP) Michel Rocard in Le Monde today, in French. This paragraph stood out:

Nous n’avons jamais pu parler un langage commun avec les représentants des grands groupes que nous avons rencontrés—et notamment ceux de Microsoft. Leur parler de libre circulation des idées, de liberté d’accès au savoir, c’est leur parler chinois. Dans leur système de pensée, tout ce qui est ôté au champ du profit immédiat cesse d’être un moteur pour la croissance. Ils ne semblent pas pouvoir comprendre qu’une invention qui n’est qu’un pur produit de l’esprit ne peut être brevetable. C’est tout simplement terrifiant. Beaucoup d’entre nous, au Parlement, conviennent que jamais ils n’ont eu à subir une telle pression et une telle violence verbale au cours de leur travail parlementaire. C’est une énorme affaire.

My loose translation into English:

We have never been able to find a common language with the representatives of large groups whom we have met—and notably those of Microsoft. Talking with them about the free circulation of ideas, of free access to knowledge, is like talking to them in Chinese. In their system of thought, everything that is outside the field of immediate profit ceases to be an engine of growth. They do not seem able to understand that an invention which is just a pure product of thought cannot be patentable. It is quite simply terrifying. Many among us in Parliament cannot recall being subjected to such pressure and such verbal violence in the course of their parliamentary work. It is a huge deal.

It’s a dodgy business. Like a lot of modern politics, it seems to place the shadowy operators of rich and powerful operators diametrically opposite the democratic process—and it has come close to being lost. Perhaps we shall yet succeed in maintaining the status quo that is working for us so far. I hope so.