30th Jun 2022

MEPs set for scrap on EU patents

  • Critics fear that would also include software patents, which Europe does not currently recognise as part of patent protection (Photo: European Commission)

Just over a year after a controversial proposal to harmonise EU patent laws was shelved indefinitely, the European Commission will present a new patents plan on Thursday. But the European Parliament has already taken out its arms and is ready to fight the plan.

EU internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy will on Thursday (28 September) present his plan for a single patent law in Europe to MEPs in Strasbourg.

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The proposed agreement is set to harmonise patent laws across the EU and will suggest the creation of a new European Patent Court, which would also be open to non-EU states.

The lawmakers are set to vote on the proposal on 11 or 12 October 2006, but already three of the parliament's political groups - the socialists, the greens and the far left - have criticised the plan, saying that it would raise legal fees and put small businesses in jeopardy.

Green Austrian MEP and member of the parliament's legal affairs committee Eva Lichtenberger believes the proposals for a European Patent Litigation Agreement [EPLA] would "lead to a practice of over-granting, low qualified patents and crippling litigation costs."

"[It] would cripple smaller innovating firms and only benefit a few lawyers specialising in patent litigation," she said in a statement.

Brussels has since 2000 sought a common EU patent law under which a patent filed in one member state would be valid all across the bloc, instead of the current system where persons or companies seeking a patent in the entire union have to apply for the patent 25 times.

The parliament's centre-right and liberal political groups want the Parliament to support Mr McCreevy's push for the EPLA, saying it is an appropriate system to overcome the lack of a community patent law.

Software patents

There are two main issues that divide the parliament. The first is the fact that EPLA would cover all patents and critics fear that would also include software patents, which Europe does not currently recognise as part of patent protection.

Last year, the parliament rejected - by a landslide vote (648-32) - a commission-proposed law aimed to harmonise patenting practices in computer-driven inventions across the EU member states - the software directive.

The fundamental dispute was to what extent software should be protected by patents, rather than just by the copyright systems that are currently in practice, as patents could hinder innovation and competition as well as push up cost of taking legal action.

Granting a patent gives a patent owner the right to legally exclude competitors from using or developing the invention, even if the competitor subsequently independently develops the same invention.

Another issue is the language. Critics say the high translation costs of Europe's 23 official languages (as of 1 January 2007) would push up prices on legal action even more and therefore again stifle competition.

The European association of craft, small and medium sized enterprises (UEAPME) believes EPLA can be a good instrument for patents in Europe.

"We support it," said Maria Cimaglia, but stressed that the association is "absolutely against software patents."

The group also favour EPLA being an English speaking institution limiting translation costs for SMEs.

'Hidden agenda politics'

"I believe the time has come to make a concerted push to improve the patent system in Europe," Mr McCreevy said at an intellectual property rights conference in Helsinki earlier this month. "What industry wants is a one-stop-shop."

He believes the answer lies in "a unified system which gives clarity and reliability to industry while avoiding both over-centralisation and fragmentation."

"The jurisdiction is fragmented. The EPLA offers a unified jurisdiction for [...] patents," Mr McCreevy said. "I believe this is a goal worth pursuing. It would offer valuable cost savings and increase certainty in regard to patent application."

However, Pieter Hintjens from the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which is a Germany-based lobbying association against software patents - is sceptical of Mr McCreevy's intentions.

"We have had enough of hidden agenda politics, it's time for the commissioner to deliver some facts. The EPLA means higher costs for small businesses, and increased litigation risks," Mr Hintjens said.

"More US-style litigation is not the solution. We just need a better patent office", he added.

"We are all for improvements to the European patent system," explained former French prime minister and socialist MEP Michel Rocard and Austrian socialist MEP Maria Berger.

"[But] there has to be a comprehensive strategy for lower costs and higher quality if patent policy is supposed to foster Europe's economy in general and SMEs in particular. Merely expanding the system itself, which is the spirit of the proposed EPLA, gets us nowhere."

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