Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Mediterranean revolt against the EU-wide patent

A few years ago I worked as a reporter covering intellectual property investment - essentially venture capital firms investing in new inventions and forming start-up companies around them. It was an interesting gig, but when I moved to London to start the job I knew nothing, and I mean nothing, about intellectual property. So it was a steep learning curve. I remember one of the things I was very surprised by when I started learning about how to protect intellectual property in Europe was the fact that, despite the existence of a European Patent Office in Munich, there is no such thing as a Europe-wide patent.

It struck me as rather strange. Of all the things the European Union could do well, it would seem that organising Europe-wide intellectual property protection would be high on the list. After all, it's a common market for products, shouldn't it be a common market for ideas?

But the reality is that though Brussels has tried time and time again, there still is no European patent - only individual patents for each member state. So if a company wants to patent its technology, product or idea throughout the European common market, it must undertake the arduous task of applying for a patent in each of the 27 member states. Each state has a different system, which involves a lot of work. And of course each state charges a high fee, resulting in a high financial cost for companies and researchers.

Since 1977 Europe has had the European Patent Office, but this office are not able to issue a Europe-wide patent. Instead, they act as a sort of 'clearing house' for people who want to apply for a bundle of national patents. A person or entity can go through the EPO if they want to apply in multiple countries, but they still have to obtain each individual patent and pay the individual fees. Few companies would want to invest the time or resources in obtaining a patent in every country, so most just pick a specific selection of countries that are most relevent to their product or service.

But now the EU may be closer than it's ever been to establishing a European patent. Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency this term, has made finally reaching an agreement on the patent a priority for its presidency, which ends at the end of the year. But there is trouble brewing as several Southern European states are starting to revolt. At issue is the mother of all EU conflicts - language.

In July Italy sent a confidential paper to other member states accusing the European Commission, which drew up the proposal for a European patent, of "linguistic discrimination". Under the commission's proposal, European patents would have to be in three languages - English, French and German. Besides these being the most widely-spoken languages in the EU, they are also the three official working languages of the EU.

Italian is the most widely-spoken first language after those three, and Italy has long grumbled about being left off the 'working language' list - and they are now keen to make sure they don't get left off the list for a new European patent - or at least that their neighbors don't get on the list while they don't. They've accused the commission's proposal of harming Italian companies while it benefits French and German speaking companies. This week Spain joined them in their complaints, saying the three working language system would harm Spanish companies.

The commission has responded that it would be too expensive to ask the European Patent Office, which will be administering the new patent and already operates in only English, French and German, to start expanding to other languages. And of course additionally one has to ask, where do you draw the line? If Italy and Spain can get their languages in by making a fuss, why shouldn't Poland? They could find themselves getting into a situation where European patents suddenly have to be translated into all 22 different languages, which would bring such an administrative burden that it would defeat the purpose of the patent.

But in fact, Spain reportedly will make a proposal in the opposite direction. It plans to actually shrink the number of working languages to just English, making it mandatory to apply for the patent in English only. This may allay Italy's fears, which were partly centered around a concern that French, Austrian and German businesses would be at a competitive advantage to Italian businesses by having their languages represented.

Ministers will be meeting to discuss the patent proposal next Wednesday, and Spain is expected to present its counter-proposal then. In the end, the only way to solve the language fighting between the continental languages may be to require that the patents be only in the language of business - English. It's hard to see France being very receptive to this plan, but the reality is that over half of the EU population speaks English, while just 26% speak French and 32% speak German. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out. But for Europe's ICT and research community, the change can't come soon enough. They are little concerned with the politics of language, they are just sick of the inefficient patent system that exists in Europe today.


CaptainEurotrash said...

Spain has the right idea. English is, for better or worse, the lingua franca of the EU.

I welcome a real EU-wide patent. I see over and over again companies that want to be in the EU but they have to deal with various levels of bureaucracy in each country. So they start with a couple of the big ones, then maybe add two or three more until they think it's not worth it anymore. So all the small countries get left behind.

Captain Kid said...

ah, the good old days... i miss the latin language.