So is this the end of the long, long journey to a single European patent? The agreement reached in Brussels last week will allow for single patents covering all EU Member States to be applied for, examined and granted in only one language - English, French or German, the languages long adopted as official by the European Patent Office (EPO).
Under the new regime, only claims for a patent – the section which defines the scope of the invention – will need to be translated into the other two working languages. The translation of a full patent specification will only be required in the case of legal dispute (which account for approximately 1% of all patent filings).
Begging to Differ
Language and translation requirements have been the last major remaining blocking issue for the single patent system. The EU proposal prepared in 2010 suggested a requirement for translation of the “core claims” into just three languages – English, French and German. This had fierce opposition from Spain and Italy, who were unhappy about the exclusion of their languages from the new regime.
But thanks to the new “enhanced co-operation”, which allows for intergovernmental treaties which do not include all 27 Member States, the idea is now moving forward. 25 EU members have agreed to participate, with Spain and Italy choosing not to, at this time.
Translation Costs Matter
Right now, what is called a “European patent” is in fact a collection of national patents, which need to be validated and enforced in each jurisdiction / Member State, rather than one centrally administered patent which would provide protection across the EU.
That arrangement is good for translation companies, but not so good for European businesses that have to bear extra costs because they cannot protect their intellectual property with a single European patent. This makes Europe uncompetitive compared with the US or Japan, and is particularly cost prohibitive for SMEs.
According to the European Commission, "an EU patent validated in only 13 Member States costs on average €20,000, compared to €1,850 in the United States. Translation costs which currently stand at €14,000 will be reduced to approximately €680 per EU patent. When the current proposal is adopted, the EU patent would cost on average €6,200."
In the same statement, the Commission gives further statistics. Patent translation currently costs on average €75 to €85 per page, and with a typical length of 20 pages adds up to more than €1,500 for a single translation of a patent. Additional costs, such as the certification of a translation, are not included in this amount.
What would be the cost implication if two more languages were added to the existing three? Even if this should apply only to the claims rather than the whole patent, the costs for users would still double. And should the claims need to be translated into all EU official languages, this would result in translation costs of approximately €6,800 euro per patent.
Agreements - From London to Brussels
Some relief has already been provided thanks to the London Agreement, which helped reduce the translation costs of European patents. Coming into force on May 1, 2008, 14 EU Member States signed up to this agreement that allows dispensing entirely or partly with the translation requirement. But 17 countries chose to remain outside and they currently continue to require a translation of the entire patent into their official language.
Some help is currently made available via “Patent Translate”, EPO's machine translation service for patents. In cooperation with Google, this service enables translation from and to English for French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Swedish, covering approximately 90% of all patents issued in Europe. This service is also seen as a facilitator of the new unitary patent.
More Bang for Your Euro
At the moment, companies on average validate and protect their patents in only five of the 27 Member States of the European Union, due to the high costs. With this new proposal, if accepted, they stand to get more bang for their buck (no pun intended). A much wider protection across Europe for much less. And this can’t be a bad thing.