Patent information can now be translated into English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Swedish via a 'patent translate' tool on the EPO website after the patent registry joined forces with internet giant Google to develop existing automated translation software.
The EPO said that it had provided Google with "several hundred thousand high quality translations of patents" in the seven languages which Google had used to "train" its translate system. The president of the EPO hailed the launch of the new service as a "landmark" in removing language barriers from patent documents.
"Patent translate enables businesses and innovators to identify relevant patent documents and to translate them in their own language," Benoît Battistelli said. "It also facilitates the implementation of the unitary patent which includes an important chapter on translation. The new tool underlines the leading role of the EPO as largest provider of free patent data, and efficiently supports the objective of both partners, Google and the EPO, of improving the accessibility of technical information contained in patents irrespective of the language of the user".
Google said the system would prove useful even if results were not always "perfect".
"Using the EPO’s parallel texts, we’ve been able to improve our ability to translate patents," Jeff Chin, Google Translate's product manager, said in a blog.
"We share a similar vision to the EPO, that machine translation can help to overcome language barriers - and help to make the information contained in patents universally accessible and useful. Whilst the improved system is pretty good, machine translation is a challenging computer science problem and does not always deliver perfect results. But it can be a very useful way for people to search and read patents that aren’t written in their language," he said.
The EPO has been working on the language software developments with internet giant Google since March last year.
Whilst approximately 90% of patents issued in Europe have been in one of the seven languages included in the new system, the EPO said it would work with Google to ensure that the system could be used to translate information into all the other EU languages – as well as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian – by the end of 2014.
The system will be able to translate documents into Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian and Norwegian some time in 2013, it said.
Plans to establish a cheaper and more efficient way for inventors to gain patent protection across Europe are currently under discussion but the proposed language regime has raised dispute.
Europe-wide protection is only possible at the moment by validating a patent registered with the EPO in each individual country. To be valid in a country a patent must be translated into its language. The European Commission has sought a cheaper system because of what it has said is the prohibitive cost of that process.
In 2010 12 EU member states got together to push for an EU-wide patent system. Under the Lisbon Treaty nine or more EU countries can use the EU's processes and structures to make agreements that bind only those countries. The proposals are now backed by every EU country except Italy and Spain.
Under the unitary patent proposals a European patent holder would make only one application to the EPO for patent protection across the 25 EU countries that have signed up to the scheme, with successful patents being initially published in English, French or German and eventually translated into all three languages. Applications for unitary patent protection not made in any of those languages would have to be translated in order to be considered, although applicants would be compensated for the cost of this.
Italy and Spain have objected to the plans, with both lodging legal cases with the European Court of Justice. Spain has said that restricting the language regime to English, French and German was discriminatory whilst Italy has said the plans are unlawful and would distort competition.
The European Commission has previously said that it can cost more than €32,000 in translation and other costs to obtain a Europe-wide patent, compared with an average cost of $1,850 in the US. The Commission estimated the overall yearly cost of validating patents in the EU to be €193m.