French to give UK pan-European businesses valuable Christmas present

The French government is due to remove the last hurdle to a dramatic reduction in the cost of registering patents across Europe, and provide a major boost to the UK business community, when it ratifies the London Agreement, probably in December.

Currently, registering patents in various different EU member states is a costly exercise, as it requires businesses to translate their patent publication into the official language of each and every state in which they wish the patent to come into effect. A survey carried out last year found that 89% of UK businesses working with patents felt that changes were needed at a European level to reduce patenting costs significantly, primarily with regard to the expense of translating patents for each member state they cover.

The London Agreement will reduce these translation costs, as patentees only need translate the claims for each country, provided that the main body of their patent is in the official language of the European Patent Office (EPO) chosen by that country. This is good news for UK patentees, as English has so far been selected by all members having a choice. Countries with English, French or German as an official language must accept the European patent in the language in which it was granted. The agreement may come into effect as early as April 1 2008.

Currently, the EPO publishes patents in English, French or German, with translations needed for each member state in which protection is required. Under the London Agreement, no member country that has English, German or French as a stipulated language can require further translation. In other member countries, no translation of the main text of the patent will be required, provided that the patent is in that country’s chosen stipulated language (ie, one of English, French or German). All members that have so far indicated a preferred language have selected English, indicating that translation costs will be vastly reduced for UK businesses.

The member states that have acceded to the treaty are:

• Denmark;
• Germany;
• Iceland;
• Latvia;
• Liechtenstein;
• Luxembourg;
• Monaco;
• Netherlands; 
• Slovenia;
• Sweden;
• Switzerland; and
• the United Kingdom.

This means that the translation costs for UK businesses wishing to file a patent with the EPO for these member states will fall dramatically.

Countries that are unlikely to be on board as of April are:

• Austria;
• Belgium;
• the Czech Republic;
• Greece;
• Italy;
• Portugal;
• Slovakia;
• Spain; and
• Turkey.

Once the London Agreement has entered into force (subject to how it is enacted in the member countries) it is expected that there will be no further requirement to translate the body of the patent (if it is in English). All that will be necessary to register a patent in member countries will be for applicants to file a translation of the claims and (probably) pay a registration fee. Full translation will continue to be necessary in countries that are not party to the agreement. Translation will also be required where the language of grant does not match the preferred language of a validation country.

The agreement has been a point of consistent sniping and disagreement across the continent. Some have argued that if an applicant is granted a powerful monopoly on an invention or product in a certain country, then the least it can do is translate that patent into the native language. On the other hand, translation costs have been prohibitive for pan-European business and, in some respects, have put the European IP system at a competitive disadvantage to that in the United States.

Moves to make pan-European protection a possibility have been resisted by Euro-sceptics and anti-software patent campaigners alike. The latter fear that the London Agreement will provide a stepping stone to the ratification of the European Patent Litigation Agreement, which provides for a centralised court for disputing patents. The EPO has typically applied slightly softer criteria towards patent applications than the UK Intellectual Property Office and ‘free-source’ campaigners are worried that a more centralised IP system will usher in software patents via the back door.

Regardless of the controversy, France’s accession to the treaty makes the London Agreement a reality and improves the prospects for UK businesses looking to protect their inventions across the European Union.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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