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European Parliament breaks patent translation deadlock

13 Dec 2012

MEPs vote in favor of a new single European patent system – with expected benefits for high-tech SMEs.

After three decades of deadlock, Europe is finally set to get a new unified intellectual property system that is able to compete with the US and Japan.

On December 11, the European Parliament voted in favor of creating a single, unified patent court that will come into effect at the beginning of 2014 – provided that the system is ratified by thirteen European Union states including the UK, France and Germany.

Bernhard Rapkay, lead MEP on the attempt to set up a unitary patent protection system, admitted that while the path towards its introduction had been “long and troubled” – largely because of language issues - the arduous process would ultimately prove to be worth the effort.

“Today’s vote is good news for the EU economy and especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs),” he said.

Recent sticking points over the proposed unitary system had centered on language translations, leading Italy and Spain to reject proposals. Translations represent a huge chunk of the overall cost of obtaining an EU-wide patent currently.

“Today a European patent issued by the European Patent Office (EPO) providing protection in the 27 EU Member States can cost up to €36,000, including up to €23,000 in translation fees alone,” states the European Commission, which believes that a new unitary patent will cost a maximum of only €6,425, with the costs of translation set to range from €680 to €2,380.

Italian MEP Raffaele Baldassarre, who had been leading negotiations on the new translation regime, described the current cost burden as “effectively a tax on innovation”.

He pointed out that, even in Italy, 75% of companies register their patents in English. "The world of business has moved on, and we have to accept this," Baldassarre said in a press conference following the MEP vote. "We have to understand that there is a need out there to facilitate innovation in the EU."

Language breakthrough
Under the new scheme, patent applications will have to be made in either English, French or German – and will be made available in the same three languages. “If made in another language, they will have to be accompanied by a translation into one of these three languages,” declared the Parliament.

While that could be seen as unfair towards those outside the UK, France and Germany, MEPs also voted to fully reimburse translation costs for EU-based SMEs, non-profit organizations, universities and public research organizations - something expected to benefit small high-tech firms in particular.

Renewal fees, which are responsible for much of the overall cost of the current European system, will also be set at a level to help SMEs, the Parliament added.

Spain and Italy, the countries most affected by the new language rules, remain outside the new regime for now, but that will not stop the decision coming into effect – provided that 13 EU states, including the UK, France and Germany, ratify the plan.

That’s because the legal package is proceeding via the so-called "enhanced cooperation procedure", which allows groups of EU states to move ahead together without the agreement of all members.

“Spain and Italy have so far opted out of the unitary patent package, but could join in the decision-making process at any time,” the Parliament says. “This procedure was used to break a deadlock, mainly due to language issues, that lasted over thirty years.”

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