Pan-European patent in prospect after years of dispute

BRUSSELS Tue Dec 11, 2012 10:24am EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union took a step closer to an EU-wide patent on Tuesday with lawmakers voting to cut the cost of protecting inventions and a top adviser to Europe's highest court rejecting a challenge to the new scheme.

Twenty-five of the EU's 27 industry ministers agreed on Monday to allow inventors to register their idea with one EU agency, signing off on a project first put forward in 1973 but which was delayed by a series of disputes, including over where to site the new patent office.

The European Parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of the plan which will see a common patent in place on January 1, 2014, if the judges in the highest EU court dismiss objections by Spain and Italy when they make a definitive ruling next year.

At a time when competition in new inventions is increasing, not only from Silicon Valley but also from Asia, a single patent is seen as encouraging innovation.

"A common European patent is key to strengthening Europe's competitiveness in a globalised world," said Swedish liberal lawmaker Cecilia Wikstrom. "We must be able to compete with the U.S., Japan and other developed countries when it comes to commercializing innovations," she said.

The current system makes the process 18 times more expensive than in the United States and 60 times more than in China, because patents have to be registered separately in individual EU countries - up to 27 times to cover the whole European Union.

Spain and Italy have so far refused to back the deal because the new regime stipulates the official languages for patents as English, French and German, so it will apply to 25 rather than 27 EU states initially.

But in Luxembourg, Yves Bot, an advocate general in the European Court of Justice, rejected their argument against the scheme in a non-binding opinion on Tuesday.

He said the judges, who are expected to rule next year, should reject the objections of Spain and Italy.

While they are not required to agree with Bot, the ECJ's judges often follow the recommendations of the court's advocates general.

An EU patent, which will still cost more than double the U.S. level at about 5,000 euros ($6,500) on average, will not revolutionize innovation in Europe overnight.

But the reform is good for business at a time when Americans obtained four times as many patents as Europeans did in 2011.

Patents, which grant the exclusive legal right to develop and exploit an idea for a limited period of time, are seen as central to encouraging innovation by ensuring that innovators can properly benefit from their efforts.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Louise Heavens and Rex Merrifield)

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