The European Commission has proposed making it cheaper to submit patent applications in any language, in a bid to clear the way for single patents that apply across the EU.
The Commission's proposal follows the current system in processing patent applications in English, German or French. Currently, however, inventors are given only a partial reimbursement of the costs involved in translating their application from their native tongue to one of those three languages. The proposed system would allow for a full reimbursement.
According to the Commission, this would pave the way for the single EU patent. A single patent process across the EU would in turn make it far cheaper for European inventors to protect their innovations in the region — a process that can cost at least 10 times as much as it does to get a US patent, the Commission said.
Although patents can be applied for and granted on a national basis, European authorities have been trying to sort out a single EU patent for the last 10 years, with translation costs proving to be the greatest barrier.
"For Europe to be competitive globally, we need to encourage innovation," internal market and services commissioner Michel Barnier said in a statement. "That's not the case today — it is far too expensive and complicated to obtain a patent. An EU patent, equally valid in all EU countries, is crucial to stimulate research and development and will drive future growth."
As things stand, the European Patent Office (EPO) already offers a single procedure for granting patents in Europe, as long as the applications are made in English, German or French. However, for a patent to apply in a certain member state, it must be validated in that member state. This often requires paying an intermediary between the patent proprietor and the national patent office, plus translating the patent, which can in itself cost €1,500 (£1,240) or more per translation.
By way of comparison, obtaining a US patent costs about €1,850, but validating a patent across just 13 EU member states can cost €20,000, of which €14,000 can be attributed to translation costs alone. According to the Commission, this particularly damages smaller companies that can only afford to validate their patents in a small number of EU countries.
The proposal made on Thursday continues to allow applications to be filed in any language. The EU patent would then be processed and granted in English, French or German. All the applicant would then have to do to make their patent valid across the EU is translate the claims part of the application — the part that defines the scope of the invention — into the other two languages official patent process languages.
The Commission said that if its proposal were to be taken up, the processing costs for a single EU patent covering all 27 member states would be around €6,200.
"Necessary arrangements would be made between the EU and the EPO to make high-quality machine translations of patent applications and patent specifications available in all official languages of the EU without additional costs for the applicants," the Commission noted. "Such translations should be available on demand, online and free of charge on publication of the patent application."
If there was a legal dispute in a member state, the alleged infringer would be able to request the translation of the full patent specification into the official language of that state. A court in that state could also require the patent proprietor to provide a full translation into the language of that court's proceedings. However, the Commission pointed out, only one percent or so of all patents are disputed.
The European Council will now have to approve the Commission's proposal, after consulting the European Parliament. Its decision is expected in September or October, according to a spokeswoman for Barnier. A new European Patent Court is also in the process of being established, after which it will handle disputes relating to existing European patents and future, single EU patents.
On Friday, Italian EU affairs minister Andrea Ronchi said his country would vote against the Commission's proposal because it would harm Italian businesses, the AFP reported. He said having EU patents processed and granted in English only would be more "politically acceptable".
The Commission noted in its statement that it had rejected the idea of having all EU patents granted in English only, because it would "result in difficulties for users accustomed to working in either German or French under the existing long-standing EPO regime." In 2009, nearly half of all EPO patent applications were made in French or German, it said. The idea of forcing applicants to translate their claims into more than three languages would "result in higher costs for the users", it added.