On November 30, 2010, the European Patent Office (EPO) and Google signed a Memorandum of Understanding to improve access to patent translations in languages spoken in EPO member states, as well as in several Asian languages. The arrangement took place in the middle of a controversy about the creation of a unique pan-European patent.
The current process to register a patent is tedious, complicated and costly. Many inventors end up forfeiting protection of their inventions, with the economically critical group of small and medium-sized businesses on top of the list.
Patents need to be filed in one of three EPO official languages (English, French and German), and then have it translated into the languages of countries where they want to apply for patent protection. This process poses some problems. Inventors have difficulties to search for information about patents published in foreign languages. Furthermore, a lot of European patents are not available in all national languages, and are therefore not protected in these countries.
The past years, the governments of the European Union have been talking about implementing a single common patent in the 27 member states. The idea was to submit patents in one of the three official languages with a summary translated into the other two. However, the EU governments failed to reach an agreement, with Italy and Spain leading the opposition by demanding their languages to be represented on a level equal to the three official ones.
So now the EPO, enabled by Google, has stepped into the void. The EPO will be using Google’s statistical machine translation tool (Google Translation) to translate patents in all languages represented in the EPO as well as patents that come from Asia, United States, Canada, Australia, Russia and India that will receive protection in Europe.
In return, Google machine translation technology will be improved notably: EPO will grant total access to their patents translated manually (almost 1 and a half million of available documents, enhanced by more than 50,000 new patents every year).
Thanks to this collaboration, scientists and inventors, whose work is based on innovation, will have easier access to patents that are already registered. This partnership will also facilitate the registration process of inventors, reducing costs and improving legal security as well as making the decision process easier for EU member states that want to simplify the introduction of pan-European patents.
The agreement has divided the scientific community. On the one hand, some think this is a good measure to boost competitiveness in Europe, if the solution is used to get familiar with a document and to understand its overall meaning. Translations will not have any legal status, but will only serve informative purposes. Nevertheless, the other side of the coin can be dangerous. Machine translation is still vague and inaccurate, while patent translations demand precision and accuracy.
So, when will it be possible to talk about a unique pan-European patent?