The European Patent Office is widely recognised as providing a high quality service for patent applicants. It provides a single authority to examine patent applications which, once approved, can be granted in over 30 countries. However, it is necessary to take the granted European patent to each separate country and obtain translations, comply with local formalities and incur significant country by country expenses. Attempts to establish an EU wide system have foundered on the rocks of language issues and local self interest. All countries, however small, want patents which are enforceable in their country to be in one of their local languages. To perform such a set of translations across the 20 or so languages required to achieve this across the EU is prohibitively expensive. The current EPO grant process requires the patent claims to be translated in French and German. While some countries have in the last few years simplified the processes it remains still a country by country grant process with corresponding bureaucratic expense. The EU parliament itself accepts that an EU wide patent at present can cost 10 times more than a comparable US patent, mainly because of the translation costs.
After years of struggle, 12 countries who are agreeable to a common patent system (including the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries) decided to form a procedure on an opt in basis – not all countries need to sign up, but those that do could have a common system for grant and renewal. Such a treaty arrangement required the approval of the EU Parliament, to ensure that the EU system as a whole was not undermined. The main objections, and in the end the only ones sustained, were from Italy and Spain, partly because they are the largest states who do not speak French or German.
As a result, the path is cleared for such a system. All EU countries other than Spain and Italy have indicated that they will opt in to the system, the detail of which is still to be finalised. This change will provide very large benefits for Australian applicants; it is expected to greatly reduce translation and renewal costs and so will increase the cost effectiveness of the European patent system. The procedure was approved on 15 February 2011.
by Peter Franke