EU promises new guidelines against foreign spying in universities and labs

26 Nov 2020 | News

Aim is to fine-tune and upgrade patent protection for companies and research institutes


The European Commission on Wednesday promised to publish new guidelines in 2021 on foreign interference targeting EU universities and higher education institutions, as part of a broader strategy to strengthen and simplify patent protection, while preventing foreign countries from wrongfully acquiring European research and innovation assets.

The commission says it will “stand ready” to use “restrictive measures” to counter private and government-sponsored cyber espionage “aimed at acquiring cutting-edge European IP assets”.

In March, the EU officials felt the need to step in and scupper an alleged attempt by US President Donald Trump to gain access to COVID-19 vaccine knowledge held by German biotech firm CureVac.

The commission also calls out the insufficient IP protection for EU firms operating abroad, and pledges to in place, “new framework conditions for international research cooperation in non-EU countries”.

“Our businesses still face great challenges when operating in non-EU countries, including weak IP rules and enforcement, forced technology transfer and other unfair practices such as limitations in IP ownership,” the commission document says.

China is not named, but is likely a country near the top of the drafters’ minds. In September, the EU’s director general for research and innovation Jean-Eric Paquet said the EU was working on “a framework of principles for engagement with China. It’s not [putting up] a wall, it’s about engaging with China on a better basis,” he said.

Upgrade protection

More generally, the plan says the EU is “facing several challenges that undermine our creative and innovative efforts.”

Chief among them is “a fragmented and costly patent system because we still have no unitary patent nor a unitary supplementary protection certificate,” according to an EU analysis.

Officials say they will tackle outdated or overly complicated procedures, inappropriate fee levels and structures, and a lack of coherence of rules between countries.

The plan proposes to tweak a series of existing tools to make them “fit for the digital age”, such as improving the so-called supplementary protection certificates for patented medicinal and plant protection products. These certificates extend a patent for a pharmaceutical or plant protection product by up to five years.

The commission says it will “explore measures” to reduce the extra costs for businesses arising from nationally administered and managed certificates. One option is to introduce a centralised grant procedure, under which an application would be subject to a single examination.

The commission will also invest €20 million in an information drive to make SMEs better aware of patenting opportunities.

European innovators and creators, in particular SMEs, are often not well aware of the benefits of IP, the commission says. Only 9 per cent of small business files for IP protection in the bloc.

Under EU plans, companies will be able to apply for “IP vouchers”, which can be exchanged for advice.

The commission also reiterates that member states should ensure the “rapid rollout” of the long-gestating unitary patent system, which in time will create a “one-stop-shop” for patent protection and enforcement across the EU.

Patent holders should in the future be able to request a unitary patent on top of their European patent, thereby avoiding the need for complex and costly national validation procedures across the EU states, which could normally add up to €32,000 in expenses.

It should cost less than €5,000 to maintain a unitary patent for 10 years, down from about €30,000 today, if member states finally clear the system for use. Patent holders should also be able to save on the legal fees for renewal payments in the different member states.

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