France is poised to break a linguistic obstacle that has for decades burdened patent applicants wanting to use their inventions across Europe.
The move will make multinational European patent applications easier and cheaper, it will also reinvigorate efforts to create a single European patent, known as the Community Patent, after numerous failed attempts.
In the coming days, France will ratify the London Agreement, which does away with the need to translate patents into all languages, Francois Fillon, the new French prime minister, said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper Tuesday.
The Munich-based European Patent Office welcomed Fillon's comments. "It's very good news to see France moving forward," said Reiner Osterwalder, an EPO spokesman.
"With France's signature the accord can enter into force automatically, thereby doing away with the bulk of translation costs patent applicants pay to have their inventions recognized in different countries around Europe," he said.
Typically, these costs account for between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of the total cost of filing for patent protection, Osterwalder said.
Ratification of the agreement will mean that patent applicants will need to submit their patents in only one language: French, English or German, the three official languages recognized under the European Patent Convention that came into force three decades ago. Patent claims - the short summaries of the patents - will have to be made available in all three official languages.
Countries with English, French or German as their national language will no longer demand translations of patents filed in one of the other two official languages. Other countries will designate one of the three as their official language for patents, while allowing applicants to file in the local tongue as well.
Some of the 32 countries that have signed up to the European Patent Convention, including all 27 European Union countries, oppose the London Agreement because they believe that dropping their language from patents will harm their economic clout in the world, and make English the de-facto commercial tongue of the continent.
Spain is the biggest opponent. It argues that Spanish is more widely spoken than French around the world, and should therefore be recognized as an official language too.
Many new members of the EU haven't yet ratified the agreement but are expected to shortly after France takes its decision, which is expected in early September. Most are expected to adopt English as their official language.
"Many countries have been waiting for France to move before signing up," said Reiner Osterwalder, a spokesman for the European Patent Office based in Munich.
The issue of translation has been one of the main obstacles to the creation of a Community Patent, but others remain. "Ratifying the London Agreement is a step forward in the Community Patent debate, but it only affects the patent process up to the point when a patent is granted," said Osterwalder.
At present patent holders must register their EPO-granted patent in every country they want to protect it, and patent disputes are fought in national courts under that country's patent code.
A Community Patent would be enforceable in all countries signed up to the European Patent Convention.
A separate initiative under debate by European lawmakers aims to create one single jurisdiction for patents, as well as one dedicated European patent court, to replace the patchwork of national jurisdictions in place now. However, the subject is proving as controversial as the translations issue.