Language Dispute Disrupts Efforts to Agree Common EU Patent System

European ministers are struggling to reach an agreement on establishing a common EU patent system aimed at cutting registration costs significantly for European businesses. Ministers have agreed to establish a new European Patent Court but the language in which patents should be submitted and granted is currently a bone of contention. The current proposal is that patents be granted in one of three official languages; English, French or German; which has left some member states unhappy.

Proposals for establishing a common European patent system have been ongoing since August 2000, with the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich currently responsible for granting patents. The EPO, which is not part of the EU, grants patents in three official languages on behalf of 27 EU states and 10 other European countries. However, the patent must then be validated according to the law of individual states and fees are payable to each state in this respect.

Under the new proposal, an applicant would file their patent registration at the EPO in any language and the patent would be granted in one of the three official EPO languages. The applicant would then have to provide the translation in the other two official languages for the section outlining the scope of the patent before it would be valid across the whole of the EU.

An English-only proposal was rejected due to the problems it would create, although the trilingual system has also faced criticism. Italy is against the trilingual proposal and has threatened to use its power of veto on the issue. Spain is also highly critical and has made its own proposal for a system where English and any other language could be chosen by the patent applicant. A five language proposal was also mooted during discussions which would include Italian and Spanish, although Poland was critical of this suggestion, citing the absence of Polish as unfair.

Applicants currently pay an average of 20,000 Euros (approx. GBP17,600) to have their patent validated in 13 EU member states, which is more than 10 times what it would cost to register a patent in the United States. The Commission says the new system will reduce translation costs from 14,000 Euros (GBP12,350) to just 680 Euros (GBP600) per patent. Proponents of the trilingual plan point out that nearly half of all patents filed with the EPO last year were in French and German. It has also been suggested that countries where patents are not registered often become centres for counterfeit products which are then exported across Europe and that the new proposals would help to overcome this.

However, critics of the proposals state that the reduced translation costs associated with the new proposals still do not make the system cheaper than filing a patent in the US. Others have pointed out that most small and medium-sized enterprises tend to use their patents only in larger EU markets, whereas comparatively few large multinational companies are willing to meet the costs of operating their patent in every EU country.

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