27 Apr 2009   |   News

Patents: slow and steady wins the race?

The world patent isn’t coming any time soon, but the EPO hopes that a new series of measures could lay the foundations for patent reform.

Alison Brimelow, EPO President

The European Patent Office is pushing for slow, steady coordination of the way that patent offices work in the world’s five biggest patent systems, according to EPO president Alison Brimelow. The outcome won’t be a ‘world patent’ system any time soon – but it will go a long way towards making the system more efficient.

Brimelow believes that while a global patent regime is unrealistic, there are many ways of working better together. Speaking at a Science|Business policy bridge meeting in Brussels on 21 April, she said that work has begun on harmonising the way each of the biggest five patent authorities in the world – the US, the EU, China, Japan and Korea – classifies its patent applications. While not glamorous, a common classification system would at least permit inventors to search more easily for prior art across the five regions.

“If you want to harmonise the litigation system you first have to harmonise the process of granting patents.” Bruno Vandermeulen of law firm Bird & Bird.

“I expect we will be able to do this within the next two to three years,” Brimelow said. Similarly, working together on training patent examiners and streamlining their databases could help bring the regimes closer together, she said.

These are a few of the ten projects the five patent authorities have signed up to. Brimelow hopes that they will serve as “building blocks” for a global patent system, but she doubted there will ever be global unity on patents.

“There are things that are patentable in the US that are simply inadmissible in Europe,” she said, adding, “I don’t see much hope of any harmonisation on substantive matters. Even within Europe, in some areas, patents don’t get treated the same in different countries”. She continued: “Do I think the time is right for a global patent system? No. Do I think we should work towards creating one? Yes.” Better coordination with other Offices is essential, she added, “if the patent system is to remain relevant.”

She described the growth in the number of patent applications around the world as “remorseless”, and warned that without more coordination, patent offices will get buried in work, which will delay the process of assessing applications.

“Is a patent still relevant if it takes seven years to get approval? We are living on borrowed time,” she said. Efforts to unite Europe’s fragmented patent jurisdictions regime were stepped up last month when the European Commission announced it is launching a renewed effort to create a single patent litigation system for the EU.

However, many delegates participating in the seminar, who included patent attorneys, examiners, company executives and university representatives, remain sceptical of there ever being a breakthrough.

“If you want to harmonise the litigation system you first have to harmonise the process of granting patents,” said Bruno Vandermeulen, a partner at the law firm Bird & Bird. But Europe has been trying to forge a single Community Patent for over 30 years without success, and Vandermeulen doubted the politicians are ready for a breakthrough now.

“There's no doubt that we need a Community Patent. However, prospects of obtaining a rapid solution seem dim,” Brimelow said.


Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up