25th May 2019


Europe needs better protection of intellectual property

  • The new set of MEPs and Commission officials arriving in Brussels after June's elections need to do far more in this area (Photo: European Commission)

The ‘knowledge economy' is one of those buzzphrases that everyone talks about but no one really seems to understand how to get a grip on.

This week's meeting of the national Lisbon co-ordinators on Friday 24 April, is sure to address related questions such as how to improve conditions for high-tech businesses, be it software, telecommunications or other digital enterprises.

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Consider, for example, the IT sector, which by all accounts provides a robust platform for innovation and economic growth. Here we should ask ourselves whether Europe's policymakers are really doing enough to protect, harness and commercialise the potential that is locked in this sector. Among other things, is Europe creating a suitable environment for the protection of the intellectual property rights (IPRs) that are so pertinent to new innovation?

Not according to a new index which measures the strength of protection of IPRs in the IT sector in different countries, which has been created and recently updated by the Stockholm Network, a pan-European think tank. Our research in fact ranks the EU as a whole at the bottom of the scale, below nation states of the EU and other countries including the United States and Japan.

The findings show that, despite the EU's Lisbon Agenda goals, the level of intellectual property protection secured to the IT sector at the EU level is significantly lower than in individual member states such as France and Germany, and 35% below that available in the United States, which tops the table.

Among the EU countries, France leads the list (with a score of 3.67), followed by Sweden (3.39), Germany (3.38), Norway (3.37) and the UK (3.31).

So why does the European Union as a whole perform so poorly and what can be done to improve the policy environment, especially at a time when Europe desperately needs new jobs and innovative industries to revive its flagging economy?

Compared with the results of the last Index, published in 2006, the updated Index does demonstrate an improvement in the strength of IPRs in several countries, particularly with regards to the term of protection and the extent of enforcement. In addition, EU countries such as France, Sweden and the UK have all seen a decline in piracy rates, with France experiencing an especially marked drop and with the outcome of Sweden's recent Pirate Bay trial showing the courts taking a harder line on those who try to flout the law.

Yet overall, the US is still streets ahead of Europe, enjoying the strongest level of IP protection (3.92), while - despite its improved piracy rates - the EU continues to have the weakest (2.55).

Breaking it down, some key policies that are particularly lacking at the EU level include the failure to harmonise the patentability of software-related inventions (today different countries in Europe have different practices in this field, though most countries do allow for this type of activity to take place).

Government procurement policies increasingly seek to favour software and standards that are based on open-source, as opposed to software and standards that are based on the projection of IPRs. In recent years, the EU has adopted and shaped policies that seek to establish the supremacy of competition rules over IPR. Europe also has a relatively high level of piracy compared to other countries and markets.

On the first point, the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent office is now reviewing policies that seek to clarify the conditions for exclusion from patentability of computer programs under Article 52 of the European Patent Convention. While such clarifications are indeed important one needs to be very careful not to "throw out the baby with the bathwater" by creating a situation in which vital technological advances in the computing domain would be excluded from patentability.

The IT sector is not alone, however, with other multi-national industries and indeed a host of small to medium sized enterprises also experiencing IP challenges in Europe.

Based on our research findings and on the current climate for IP protection in Europe, it would seem that the new set of MEPs and Commission officials arriving in Brussels after June's elections need to do far more to address its intellectual property environment in order to meet the Lisbon goals. If they don't, Europe will be ill-equipped to attract the types of high-tech businesses likely to signify its best hope of economic growth in the future.

Helen Disney is chief executive and Dr Meir Pugatch is Research Director of the Stockholm Network, a pan-European think tank.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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