The European Patent Office just published their annual report for 2014, and it makes happy reading. Patent filings reached a record breaking high of over 274,000. Medical technology remained the top technical field, while Samsung remained the top applicant in 2014, followed by Philips, Siemens, LG, and Huawei. The US maintained their crown as the top country of origin for new patent filings.
Protecting intellectual property is seen as critical to investment in innovation. This protection comes at a high price however, driven in part by the cost of multi-jurisdiction (and therefore multilingual) patent search and patent filing. So the demand to reduce the cost and complexity of filing a patent has been and remains a pressure point for intellectual property offices around the world. To meet this challenge, the offices have supported patent filers with efforts that include the automation of online filing systems, and international agreements to harmonize filing standards.
In the European Union, two measures have emerged to specifically target the high cost of the language and translation effort of patent filings: Patent Translate and the Unitary Patent.
Patent Translate, Backed by Google
One of the European Patent Office’s most notable efforts at lowering language-related barriers has been the creation of Patent Translate, a translation service that works on Espacenet and the European publication server to enable multilingual patent research.
Under the terms of a non-exclusive, compensation-free deal, the EPO handed over its entire corpus of human-translated patents so that Google could train the Google Translate engine on the specific grammar and vocabulary of patent filings, patent research, and patent content. In exchange, the EPO could use Google Translate’s MT engine on the EPO web site to translate patents between English and 21 languages of the 28 member states of the European Union (Irish and Maltese are not supported) as well as Albanian, Icelandic, Macedonian, Norwegian, Serbian, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian.
The Patent Translate system was completed in December 2013, one year ahead of schedule. Translation from and into French and German is also available for 27 languages.
Unitary Patent, the Final Frontier
As a statistically based learning engine, Patent Translate increases its accuracy year after year. Nevertheless, even machine translation’s fiercest promoters cannot yet boast that its automation and innovation assures translation accuracy. Patent Translate’s output provides merely the gist of the source material’s content.
That is why the pending European patent with unitary effect (Unitary Patent) — along with its translation arrangements — is an important additional step to reducing the language-related expense of the patent filing process. The unitary patent will coexist alongside already-existing European and national patents.
While applicable to 25 of the participating Member States, the unitary patent can be filed in three of the languages of the Union: English, German or French. If the filer is within the European Union but not residing in a nation that has one of these as an official language, the European Patent Office will reimburse the costs of translation into one of the filing languages via a yet-to-be determined compensation system.
“After grant of the European patent, no further human translations will be required if the patent holder opts for a unitary patent,” states the European Patent Office.
Of course, those wanting information in any of the European Union’s other languages are expected to rely on the machine translation of Patent Translate.
The move to restrict the filing languages to English, French, and German was not uncontested. Not only did Spain and Italy refuse to sign off on the measure, the nations filed suit, claiming infringement upon their self-determination and the unanimity principles of the European Union. While these claims were rejected by the Court of Justice, plenty of questions remain about how the Unitary Patent (UP) and the Unitary Patent Court (UPC) will operate — whether that begins in 2015 as pledged or, as experts predict, in late 2016.
According to the Financial Times, the cost of patent filing in the multinational European Union ranges somewhere between €30,000 to €40,000 — a sum that one interviewed chief executive proclaimed was 100 times higher than filing for a U.S. patent and therefore a considerable barrier to investment. With efforts like Patent Translate and the Unitary Patent, are the days of high translation-related expenses soon to be behind us? Well, the world’s most innovative brands certainly hope so.