EU seeks to end long-running dispute on single patent

Fri Jan 27, 2012 10:34am EST

* Streamlined system would help business and inventors

* Debate simmers as EU leaders meet to discuss growth

* Top innovator Germany pushes to have patent court in Munich

By John O'Donnell

BRUSSELS, Jan 27 (Reuters) - European Union countries are redoubling efforts to settle a dispute over the introduction of a single European patent, a move that would cut costs for inventors and industry but which, after more than three decades of debate, remains unresolved.

EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meet on Monday to discuss ways of boosting growth and jobs in an attempt to break with a previous focus on cutting public debt.

It will also offer an opportunity to end the deadlock over Europe's fragmented system of patenting, where an inventor typically now pays up to 35,000 euros ($46,000) to protect an idea, according to the European Patent Office (EPO).

The expense is many times more than that for a U.S. rival, because the current European system means a patent must be taken out in many countries rather with one EU agency. The potential savings of a single patent, which the EPO estimates could cut the bill by more than two-thirds, remain elusive.

While most EU member states have agreed to go ahead with a streamlined patent scheme, it is being held up disagreement between Germany, France and Britain over which of them should host the court that will adjudicate in patent disputes.

Denmark, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, and other countries including the Netherlands, are pushing to break the logjam, as Europe's leaders seek to convince sceptical markets they have a strategy to spur growth from a sluggish economy.

"In these economically challenging times, a unitary patent would unlock an enormous growth potential for European businesses and allow us to compete with the United States and emerging markets," Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch deputy prime minister and minister for economic affairs and innovation, said in a statement.

"So let's stop talking and give the European economy a push. We should close the deal."

Such a move would appear to be a straightforward way to help European industry, but national pride makes it difficult.

Merkel is reluctant to back down on demands that the court be in Munich. Germany accounted for roughly 14 percent of all applications to the European Patent Office in 2011, almost three times as many as France and far ahead of Britain's 3 percent.

German inventors and industry, led by engineering giants such as Siemens and Robert Bosch, applied to register more than 33,000 patents in 2010, compared to roughly 80 in Greece and similar number in Portugal, according to the EPO.

France is arguing that the court to oversee the new patent scheme should be in Paris; Britain wants it in London.

"We have already made a lot of concessions," said one French diplomat. "For instance, the legal system is based on German principles, not French ones."

Sharon Bowles, an influential member of the European Parliament who was closely involved in a debate about the location of three EU agencies to monitor banks, insurers and markets, said the patents dispute followed a familiar pattern.

"It always comes this way," she said "It's jobs. It's prestige."

Once in place, the single patent system will avoid the need for inventors to register and defend their ideas in many countries and languages.

Italy and Spain, however, have refused to back a deal because the new regime stipulates the official languages for patents as English, French and German. They want Italian and Spanish included too.

The agreement for a single patent had originally been due to be signed off next month, with the court to be set up in the first six months of 2012.

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