Keynote speech by EPO President Benoît Battistelli

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Europe Day reception. 12 May 2012, Munich 

Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the European Patent Office, I am delighted to welcome you here this evening. I would like to extend a particular welcome to:

  • Königliche Hoheit Prinz Wolfgang von Bayern;
  • Commissioner Oettinger;
  • Dr Niebler from the European Parliament;
  • The distinguished members of the Consular Corps;
  • Dr Stauner, representing the Bavarian government, and to the members of the Bavarian parliament who are with us this evening;
  • and the representatives of the city of Munich.

I thank you all for honouring us with your presence. I would also like to thank the representatives of the European Parliament and of the European Commission, Mr Kubosch and Dr Arp, for their work in co-organising this event, on the occasion of Europe Day, in our newly renovated headquarters.

Our building here houses, as well as the EPO, the Munich Information Office of the European Parliament and the representation of the European Commission. It therefore embodies, in - literally - concrete terms, the excellent relationship between the European Patent Office and the institutions of the European Union.

Which brings us to the subject of this evening's celebration. Europe Day, as we know, marks the date on which the European Union started to come into being - when the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed in 1950 that France, Germany and other countries should pool their coal and steel production.

This was to be the first step towards establishing, in Schuman's words, a "supranational" community, a European federation which was to be "solidly united and constructed around a strong framework".

In this spirit, Europe Day in Munich provides a welcome occasion to bring together representatives of politics and industry, and of the institutions devoted to strengthening international cooperation - especially within Europe but also beyond its borders.

Ladies and gentlemen, as a convinced European, I continue to see Europe as a success story. For all the current talk of crisis, we must not lose sight of the impressive achievements of European integration.

Those achievements include the creation of the European patent system. The EPO, one of the key elements in this system, is an independent international organisation, set up under the European Patent Convention, which was signed here in Munich in 1973, almost 40 years ago.

Although it is not an EU agency, the European Patent Office stands shoulder to shoulder with the EU. The European Patent Office, as the patent granting authority for Europe, opened its doors for business in 1978. Since then it has been working in a common effort with the EU and its forerunners to promote innovation and growth in Europe.

The EPO was set up to overcome the national fragmentation of the patent system.

Previously, European companies or inventors wishing to protect their intellectual property had to file a national patent application in each of the countries where protection was needed. The EPO replaced this with a centralised procedure for receiving and examining patent applications, up to the point at which a patent is granted.

So, with a single application, the user of the system can apply for a patent that will be valid in any or all of the 38 member countries of the Organisation, including all the 27 EU member states.

The advantages of this supranational system are obvious. They are certainly apparent to patent applicants, our users. With their endorsement, the European patent system has continued to expand and enhance its stature. The number of patent applications has grown dramatically - to more than 250 000 last year, and the reputation of the EPO among the user community is second to none.

The general consensus is that the European patent system, as it now stands, is in excellent health. It delivers strong, high-quality patents in a way that, compared with the previous system, and with other patent offices of comparable size, is highly efficient.

What are the main features of the European patent system

I would say the high quality of the products and services we deliver all year long, which is the result of three main elements:

  • First, our highly qualified staff: 7 000 people work at the EPO, representing more than 30 European nationalities, which makes us the second largest public institution in Europe, after the Commission. Of those 7 000, 4 000 are specialised engineers and scientists capable of  working in our three official languages - English, French and German.
  • Second, our powerful IT tools. To further the dissemination of the technological information contained in patents, the EPO has developed comprehensive data bases, such as Espacenet (containing 70 million patent documents), and specialised search engines, such as EPOQUE, which is also used by 40 other patent offices all over the world, from China to Brazil and Canada to  Australia.
  • Third, our balanced and rigorous system of examination. After a thorough process of examination and assessment, only about 40% of patent applications are finally accepted by the EPO. In some fields, such as biotechnology (28%), the grant rate is even lower. For us, it is essential that all interests are taken into account, not only those of the applicant but also those of third parties and society at large.  

At the EPO, we take very seriously our role in supporting innovation and competitiveness.

A few days ago, Commissioner Oettinger, you spoke at a conference in Brussels on smart energies, and underlined the need for every one of us to be active now in Europe.

We totally share your view, Commissioner, and for that reason I am pleased to inform you that in September 2010, the EPO already launched a dedicated search engine to identify clean energy technologies among millions of patents. A new tool for the field of transportation should soon be available.

Another concrete example of recent important achievements is our machine translation service.

You may be aware that one of the biggest challenges of patent offices at the global level is access to the technical information on which our search and examination procedures are based.

More and more patents and technical documents are published in languages, especially Asian languages, which are not easily accessible for Europeans.

To overcome this linguistic barrier, the EPO has developed, through a partnership with Google, a new machine translation system, which is already up and running. Since the end of February, it has been available on our website, free of charge.

The system offers translation from and into English for six other European languages (German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Portuguese). Within the next two years, it will be extended to all 28 official languages of our member states, plus Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian.

But instead of treating you to a long speech on this topic, I would suggest, if you are interested, that you join me after this event to meet our specialists in a room next door, for a live demonstration of what our machine translation service can do.

It is fair to say that the European patent system has worked well, to the benefit of Europe as a whole - and, I might add, of the local economy here in Munich, in which patents have become a significant factor.

But no system of this kind is ever perfect - the process of optimisation is still continuing. A further step forward is currently envisaged, a truly major step, which would greatly strengthen the ties between the European Patent Office and the institutions of the EU.

At the instigation of industry, the European Commission has for some years been pursuing a further improvement of the existing European patent system. This would involve the grant of a "Community" or "EU" or - as it is now called - a "unitary" patent.

The "unitary" right would be valid throughout 25 member states of the European Union from the date of grant and would thereafter be administered by the EPO, instead of by the national offices of our member states. The EPO would act as a one-stop shop for patentees. Everything, from filing the application to paying renewal fees and keeping a register of unitary patents, would be managed centrally.

The unitary patent would be open, moreover, to litigation with a uniform effect. Thus, instead of having to take a competitor to court in several countries to stop him from infringing a patent, the patent holder could take action against the infringer on a centralised basis, before a single court whose decision would apply in all the EU member states.

The advantages of the unitary patent, too, are obvious. For users, it would save costs and reduce administrative burdens. And it would become far easier, and cheaper, for a patent holder to enforce his rights. For European industry, especially for the innovative SMEs - the Mittelstand - which in Germany and elsewhere are a main engine of growth and prosperity, this is crucial.

At a recent symposium in Berlin, Dr Lothar Steiling, the President of the German Association of Intellectual Property Experts, pointed to the key importance of the affordable and effective litigation arrangements under the unitary system, which in terms of legal certainty would provide Europe with the best patent system in the world.

Accordingly, a succession of EU Council Presidencies have put their diplomatic weight behind the unitary patent project.

At this time last year, it seemed to us that the long-awaited breakthrough in the negotiations on the unitary patent could be just around the corner. In recent months, however, the position has shifted.

The Polish EU Presidency, in the second half of 2011, invested a great deal of energy in the proposed regulation on unitary patent protection and the court system for patent litigation. However, owing to the lack of agreement among EU member states, the initiatives have become stalled. Earlier this year, the European Parliament postponed its First Reading and the vote on the creation of the unitary patent system to an "indefinite time" in the future.

Substantive misgivings are still being voiced in some quarters about the centralised litigation arrangements, which, as I said, are a fundamental element of the proposed system.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think it would be highly regrettable if the efforts already made in connection with the unitary patent were to be dissipated. The momentum built up in 2011 needs to be sustained.

This, in my view, is an economic imperative. With Europe's fragmented market in innovation and intellectual property, we are at risk of losing out to the world's other superpowers. It is time that we set aside our differences.

The success of the European patent system rests on a two-tier approach:

  • As one of the largest and best-resourced IP offices worldwide, the EPO acts as the granting authority for European patents.
  • Acting as the interface between the marketplace and R&D, the national patent offices provide local services, support and IP knowledge to innovating companies, putting them in a position to recognise and efficiently fulfil their IP protection needs.

Thanks to this two-tier system, in which national and European elements are complementary, the EPO is a real European success story. The EPO is the voice of Europe at the global level. It shows that when Europe has the political will to pool its resources, to overcome its divergences and to transform its diversity into an asset, it can build a leading position in the world.

In his statement yesterday on the occasion of Europe Day, President Barroso said that Europe should never cease to be proud of how much has been accomplished. But he also emphasised the need to "regain competitiveness ... and eliminate the remaining barriers ... that restrict the potential of our single market". I could not agree more.

Meine Damen und Herren,

On that note, referring once again to the spirit of European cooperation which we are celebrating this evening, I shall conclude my remarks.

Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit.

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