The European Commission has now tabled a package of two legislative proposals for a single European patent which, it says, will reduce the cost of patents in Europe by up to 80%.
Spain and Italy are still not participating in the long-delayed single patent scheme proposals, but the European Internal Market and Services Commissioner, Michel Barnier, said he continues to hope that, in time, all European Union (EU) member states will choose to join it.
"It is my deeply-held conviction that there is no sustainable economic growth without innovation - and no innovation without efficient intellectual property protection," he said.
In March, an opinion issued by the European Court of Justice stated that the Commission's proposal to set up a European and Community Patent Court would not be compatible with EU law, but Commissioner Barnier said the Commission would be presenting a new proposal on this topic at the beginning of May.
"The purpose of unitary patent protection is to make innovation cheaper and easier for businesses and inventors everywhere in Europe. It will mean a big reduction in terms of costs and red tape, and provide a stimulus for European innovation. It will be accessible for all companies in the EU, no matter where they are based," he said.
The current European patent system is very expensive and complex, particularly during the phase after the patent has been granted, and this is widely recognised as a hindrance to innovation in the EU, says the Commission. Responsibility for granting patents, if the relevant conditions are met, lies with the European Patent Office (EPO), but for a granted patent to become effective within a member state, the inventor has to request validation in each country where patent protection is sought. This process involves considerable translation and administrative costs, reaching around 32,000 euros when patent protection is sought in all 27 EU member states, of which 23,000 euros arises from translation fees alone.
In comparison, the cost of a US patent averages just 1,850 euros, says the Commission.
Moreover, the maintenance of patents in the EU requires the payments of annual renewal fees country by country, while transfer of the patent or a licensing agreement to use the patented invention have to registered in the same way.
However, under the Commission's newly-presented proposals, the cost of a single European patent in the 25 participating member states would be 680 euros, following a transitional period during which the costs would still be less than 2,500 euros.
Holders of European patents would be able to apply at the EPO for unitary patent protection, which would ensure the same level protection for their inventions throughout the 25 nations.
Patent applications could be submitted in any language, although the EPO would continue to examine and grant applications in England, French or German - the official languages of the EPO. For applicants residing in the EU who file their patent application in a language other than these three, the cost of translating it to one of the three official languages would be compensated.
After the patent has been granted, its claims - which define the scope of the protection - would be translated into the other two official languages.
For a transition period of no more than 12 years, single European patents granted in French or German would need to be translated into English, while those granted in English would be translated into another of the official languages, says the Commission, which notes that these translations would be required until high-quality machine translation became available.
The Commission proposals would require the EPO to take on a number of additional tasks, including administration of requests for the new patent, renewal fees and maintaining a register for the unitary patent, but EPO president Benoit Battistelli says the Office is "well prepared to carry out these additional tasks."
The draft regulations now pass to the Council and the European Parliament for consideration.
Meantime, the EPO reports that in 2010 it received 235,000 European patent filings, up 11% on 2009 and the highest number ever in the Office's 34-year history. Some 39% of last year's filings originated from the 38 member states of the European Patent Organisation, while 26% were from the US, 18% from Japan and 5% each from China and South Korea,
The strongest growth rates were reported for biotechnology-related filings - which increased 42.6% to 7,400 applications in 2010 - and pharmaceuticals, which went up 20% to reach 6,700 filings.