European Patent Organization president Alain Pompidou hit back at criticism of Europe's patent regime from parts of the software industry on Tuesday, with assurances that software per se cannot be patented.

His comments at an intellectual property conference in Lisbon come as the debate over the future of patents in Europe intensifies.

"The relatively high cost of European patents compared with their Japanese and American counterparts can be considered detrimental to the continuing success of the European patent system and to the innovation process in general," Pompidou said in prepared remarks.

Although there has been a single European Patent Organization (EPO) for almost 30 years, inventors still have to register their patents in all the countries where they want patent protection.

European parliamentarians will vote on Wednesday on whether to support a new effort by the European Commission to create a single patent regime for the whole of the European Union, the so-called Community Patent.

The Commission, the EU's executive and regulatory arm, is also pushing a less ambitious, backup plan to improve the current system, administered by the EPO. This entails the EU becoming a signatory to two new EPO agreements: one to reduce the languages a patent must be translated into, and a second agreement to set up one patent court with sole responsibility for examining patent disputes.

After the European Parliament scrutinises the Commission’s plans this week, the Union's 25 heads of state and government will discuss them at an informal meeting in Finland, holder of the six-month rotating presidency, on 20 October.

However, some prominent software industry voices bitterly oppose the effort to create a single European patent court through the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA), which remains in draft form for now.

Open-source and free software supporters believe the EPLA is a disguised way of imposing software patents in Europe.

Florian Mueller, founder of the NoSoftwarePatents campaign that last year helped to block the passing of a Union-wide law on computer-implemented inventions (dubbed the software patent directive), said the EPLA is even more onerous than the law he helped defeat.

"From a software patents point of view, the EPLA would have far worse consequences than the rejected patentability directive would have had: not only would software patents become more enforceable in Europe but also patent holders in general would be encouraged to litigate," he said in July at a hearing in Brussels.

Pompidou rejected the criticism and accused Mueller and others of being "biased".

"The proportion of computer-implemented inventions is obviously growing, as innovation tends to rely more and more on the information technology incorporated in a growing number of devices, from cars to washing machines to mobile phones," he said.

"However, let me make it quite clear that the EPO does not have its own agenda on software patents. In accordance with the 1973 European Patent Convention (EPC), the EPO does not grant patents for computer programs as such, but it does grant patents for computer-related inventions that are novel, inventive and of a technical character."

"The non-obviousness criterion, as well as the novelty and the technical character requirements, are strictly applied by the EPO," Pompidou said.

Supporters of software patents in industry are urging the Commission to abandon efforts to create a Community patent because they fear another bruising lobbying war with the antipatent campaigners.

Instead, they are urging Europe's legislators to pursue the less ambitious tweaking of the existing system.

But it now seems that even this more modest initiative will be fiercely debated, and the delicate issue of software patentability will remain at the centre of the debate.