The revised European Patent Convention took effect this week, bringing in a system designed to substantially simplify patent issues for businesses, according to the European Patent Office.
The updated Patent Convention has been 10 years in the making, and updates the original 1973 agreement with more flexibility, more legal certainty, simpler procedures and reduced costs, the European Patent Office (EPO) said.
Patents are becoming increasingly important for IT departments and the risk of software patent infringement has become a significant factor.
Software patents have not yet made the impact in Europe that they have in the US, but a large number have been granted this side of the Atlantic, and proposed changes such as the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA) could make them more effective.
The new patent convention may accelerate changes to the legal environment around IT patents, as one of its provisions simplifies further revisions to Europe's patent framework. Revisions can now be effected through decisions by the EPO's Administrative Council, something that previously required diplomatic conferences between member states.
The EPC is the treaty that forms the backbone for the laws that allow the granting of European patents. The European Commission decided to overhaul the convention in 1998 and the EPC Final Act was completed in 2000. It took another five years before the required 15 member states acceded to the revised text, and the text finally took effect two years after that.
Patent applications can now be filed in any language, as long as a translation in English, French or German is supplied. Applicants can also restrict the scope of their patents using a centralised procedure, and the restrictions will hold for all member states.
"The new convention is a further milestone in international patent law in Europe," said the EPO's president Alison Brimelow in a statement. "It simplifies access to Europe-wide patent protection and makes procedures before the EPO easier for applicants and patent proprietors, while maintaining the [EPO's] reliable structures and high-quality standards."
At a recent conference on the future of the European patent system, Ron Marchant, former chief executive of the UK Patent Office, said further simplifications are critical for Europe's economic future. "Europe needs a better patent system, especially if it is to unlock the potential of its myriad SMEs," he said. "Within Europe the simplification of the system is both more important than ever and perhaps looking as unattainable as ever. But Europe is only part of the global economy; the wider world has also not stood still and thus further challenges for Europe are created."
Another effort towards reform of the European patent system is the EPLA, which has been gaining ground over the past year. The EPLA proposes to make drastic changes to the way patents are enforced in the EU, setting up unified bodies such as a European Patent Court.
Currently national courts enforce different rules across the region. Critics say the agreement would take patent issues out of the hands of the democratically elected European Parliament and would make software patents strongly enforceable in Europe.
Such criticisms led the European Parliament to scrap a proposed patent directive in 2005, despite strong backing from the European Commission and large multinationals including IBM and Microsoft. A similar group of companies are now backing and opposing the EPLA, according to industry observers.