Google has agreed to use its technology to translate patents in Europe into 29 languages. It is hoped that this deal with the European Patent Office (EPO) will also assist in establishing a common European patent.
At present, a potential patentee has three options to protect their invention throughout the European Union (EU). First, it can file applications in individual countries. Secondly, it can apply for protection under the European Patent Convention (EPC). Such a ‘European patent’ is not centrally enforceable, but confers a bundle of nationally-enforceable rights. Thirdly, there is also the option of filing under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. This complicated process is also very expensive as filing, maintenance and, potentially, litigation fees have to be paid in multiple jurisdictions. Indeed, it is more costly to get patent protection in the EU than in competing markets.
While harmonisation of national laws remains an important priority for European lawmakers, negotiations regarding the establishment of a common European patent system have consistently failed. With a central registration system, a patent from one nation would need to be translated into various languages so it could be understood in all other member states. However, disagreements have arisen regarding the dominant language of the proposed system, as well as who should pay for the necessary translations. Currently, the EP has three official languages – English, French and German.
The agreement with Google has removed a major stumbling block – translation fees – in negotiations regarding a simplified central patent system. As such, it is expected to accelerate moves towards a common European patent. In the short term, the agreement with Google will make it easier for European companies, inventors and scientists to verify whether any current patents exist in their particular field. It will be possible to enter key words or phrases in an individual’s native tongue to efficiently retrieve relevant documents.
The agreement is also expected to benefit Google in allowing access to a large number of patents that have already been translated into several languages. Google is expected to use this information to further develop its translation programs, which ‘learn’ languages by evaluating completed translations.
Automatic translation will have consequences beyond the European market. For example, it seems likely that it will have an important role in facilitating access to the growing body of patents in Asia, particularly China.