Global Economics

EU-Wide Patent Scheme Back on Agenda


Seeking a unified system for intellectual-property rights on the Continent, the European Commission revisits the idea of a bloc-wide patent

The European Commission has kicked off a fresh round of talks on an EU-wide patent system, trying to break a 20-year deadlock which harms the 27-nation bloc's innovation performance.

On Tuesday (3 March), Brussels published its vision of how to improve the way intellectual property rights are handled in Europe, underlining that having "a single community patent would be the most affordable and legally secure answer" to the current challenges.

According to EU commissioner for the internal market Charlie McCreevy "the EU simply must deliver" as patents are "a driving force for promoting innovation, growth and competitiveness."

Europe lags far behind the US and Japan in terms of patent activity due to the fact that its present system is too slow and expensive. The system comes down to a bundle of national patents that must be translated into contracting states' official languages in order to be legally valid in their territory.

For example, a company wishing to protect its invention in 13 out of 27 EU countries has to pay 11 times more than for an American patent and 13 times more than for a Japanese one, according to the EU's executive body.

Different patent litigation systems across the bloc also add to the costs and cause legal uncertainty, as patents have to be enforced through national courts.

"Litigation is simply unaffordable for small and medium-sized enterprises," Thierry Stoll from the commission's directorate general for internal market said, explaining that each step at a national court of first instance costs between 50,000 and 1.5 million.

Additional risk lies with the fact that national courts handle patent cases in a different way and often reach conflicting conclusions in patent disputes. "The diagnosis has been clear for a while. Now, a remedy needs to be brought to the jurisdictional situation in Europe," Mr Stoll said.

EU states' opposition

Brussels has been advocating reform of the EU's heavily fragmented and cumbersome patent system for two decades, but member states have so far failed to agree on the best way forward.

Four years ago, national capitals ditched a landmark plan to set up a single community-wide patent that would grant inventors protection across the entire EU bloc because they were unable to agree on a language regime for the new patent.

EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy's current proposal makes the improvement of the jurisdictional system for patents its number one priority.

According to Mr McCreevy, the EU should create a unified litigation area on European patents and future community patents. It should comprise a limited number of first instance chambers across the EU and a fully centralised appeal court - the European Court of Justice - as the final arbiter in patent disputes.

"Work on an EU-wide patent jurisdiction scheme may help pave the way for progress on the creation of an affordable and legally secure community patent," the commission paper says.

Brussels hopes its ideas would gain a tentative blessing at a June meeting of ministers for competitiveness, with a formal proposal likely to be tabled during the Portuguese presidency in the second half of this year.

"The Spring summit in 2008 - linked to the Lisbon goals on making Europe the world's most dynamic and competitive economy - should give a strong push to patent reform," the commission said.

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