Can Europe Cut Cost of New Ideas?

Patents are translated umpteen ways

Ingo Kober is worried about the high price of European inventiveness - and it's likely to get worse. Patent protection is fundamental to industrial innovation. But Dr. Kober, president of the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany, calculates the average cost of a patent is a prohibitively high $35,000.

"All our fees are too high," he observed recently, with a candor not always heard in officialdom.

In particular, Kober would like to trim the cost of translating patents, which now accounts for 40 percent of the cost of a European patent. And the problem is getting worse. He expects costs will more than double within a decade as the European Union expands. "Each of the new prospective member countries will bring a new language into the EU - Polish, Czech, Hungarian," he says.

But his solution - drastically reducing the amount of text translated - has drawn strong opposition from countries in Southern Europe, particularly Spain, concerned about possible loss of their language and identity.

"We are strongly opposed, for legal, cultural, and political reasons" to reductions in the number of translations," says Diego Carrasco, director of the international relations department of the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office in Madrid. "If a Spanish entrepreneur cannot read a patent application in his own language ... how could he know what his rights are?"

The issue of patent costs sounds arcane but has wide significance. If there's anything Europe could use right now, it's a wave of technological expansion, like the one it experienced in the late 19th century. Then, Europeans could fret less about jobs being shed by the thousands in coal, steel, autos, and telecommunications, and could focus on the opportunities offered by new technologies.

But patent costs in Europe "are four times as expensive as in the United States, and more expensive than in Japan," says Friedrich Kretschmer, head of the legal department of the Federation of German Industry in Cologne. He backs Kober's proposal for less translation.

The European Patent Organization is separate from the EU but includes all 15 EU countries plus Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Switzerland. Under its current system, a patent application can be submitted in German, English, or French. But after the patent is approved, it must be translated into the national language for each country in which it is to be valid - eight countries on average. Moreover, in many countries the translation must be "validated" too: Another translator must attest that the translation is accurate - for a fee, of course.

Kober's solution: Translate only a brief abstract of the original application: a single page, plus a drawing.

Patents are important because "a patent protects the inventor of the better mousetrap, as well as the investors who support his research," Mr. Kretschmer points out. "But it also benefits the would-be inventor of the still-better mousetrap, because 18 months after a patent is issued, the application is made public, and anyone can have access to it." It is just this access to technological data that Spain wants to keep by maintaining full translations.

Translation costs are not the only obstacle to patents. Dennies-Johannes von der Osten, a venture capitalist in Berlin, says legal fees are the real problem: "There are very few lawyers able to translate scientific discoveries into the kind of legal terminology that stands up in a patent application, and they command very high fees."

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