Editorial published at EUObserver.
Contrary to what one might think, the idea of an EU patent is not the latest fashion. Negotiations started in the glorious 1970s, when we all wore flare jeans and platform shoes; the EU was still called the EEC and agreements were possible with only nine Member States.
Forty years and several EU enlargements later, flared jeans went out and came back into fashion (and went out again). But have we actually moved forward on the patent discussions?Currently, companies operating in the EU can file for national patents alongside a European patent issued by the European Patent Office. However, the system is far from simple and it can cost up to 10 times more than a US patent. A unified EU patent system, with English, French and German as the official languages, would significantly cut red tape, reduce costs and foster R&D in the single market. With a common patent system, Europe could actually stand a chance of challenging the US leadership in innovation.
Arguing that a unified patent regime would amount to cultural and language discrimination, several member states managed to continuously stall progress. And just when we thought all hope was lost, an agreement on the EU patent finally came through last week …
Many small steps that culminated with the European Parliament vote on 15 February on the enhanced co-operation mechanism, which will allow all but two unwilling Member States to set up a common patent system and patent court.
While there are still details to formalize, everything indicates that Europe will have a unified patent system at last. True bliss for small business (SME) innovators across Europe!
Well, nearly … Italy and Spain stand proudly alone in refusing to accept a patent system which does not recognize Italian and Spanish as official languages. Their national pride is hurt, but I really wonder: are patents the best place to defend language and cultural heritage? It could hardly be so, given that patents are highly technical legal documents. We are glad to see that reason has prevailed and language disputes will no longer cloud progress.
There is no doubt that an EU-wide patent system will bring benefits to innovative SMEs in practical terms, it will considerably smooth the patent filing process. We will say goodbye to legal patent definitions that differ between member states, long waiting times of up to 44 months before a patent application is approved or denied, and the high costs of translation requirements. Filing European patents will be simpler and cheaper.
A robust patent protection will place European entrepreneurs in a more secure position to fully develop their capabilities. Patents tend to go unnoticed in the innovation gap debate, but the fact is that many EU companies are choosing to register their products in the States because it is easier and cheaper than cutting through 27 sets of red tape.
The single patent system will put an end to this and will bring investments to Europe. At a time of innovation deficit and economic turmoil, we need all the support we can get to create a business-friendly environment that encourages growth. We hope that Italy and Spain will soon realize that they will have more to gain than to lose by adopting the EU patent and breaking this innovation deadlock.