A single EU-wide patent system has long been a goal of Brussels policy makers since it costs far more to register a patent across the 27 member states than it does in comparably sized competing areas such as the United States.
The sticking point for new patent systems has always been the translation of patents. Countries have resisted attempts to force translations only into the EU's three official languages English, French and German but the addition of each new language pushes costs up and makes the system less useful.
The European Commission published a proposal to solve the translation issue in July of this year but EU ministers have failed to reach agreement on that proposal, which relied on computer translations of parts of patents.
It has now backed attempts by 12 countries to press ahead with a single system and has asked the European Council of Ministers to approve the scheme.
The countries that will take part in the system are the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. It would take the form of an 'enhanced cooperation mechanism', the Commission said.
"[It] would allow some Member States to move forward immediately, leaving the possibility to others to join at a later stage," said a Commission statement. "Unitary patent protection would allow those Member States that so desired to agree to establish a patent, valid in all participating countries, that could be obtained with a single application."
The proposal must be accepted by the European Parliament, then by a qualified majority of the Council of Ministers. The Commission said that it would publish detailed proposals on the translations issue next year.
"Filing for patents in Europe is a costly and complicated affair, making it available only to those companies who have deep pockets," said Michel Barnier, the European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. "The unacceptable reality is that on average innovators validate and protect their patents in only 5 of the EU's 27 Member States because of the high costs."
"European inventors can afford no further delay. This is why the Commission proposes that some Member States should be able to move ahead for a unitary patent protection, and I hope that over time all Member States will join this new system," said Barnier.
"A European Patent validated in only 13 Member States can cost up to €18 000, of which nearly €10 000 arises from translation fees alone," said the Commission statement. "This has created a situation in which the cost of a European Patent is ten times greater than a US patent, which costs on average €1850. Because of the costs involved, most inventors only patent their invention in a very limited number of Member States."
The unitary patent under discussion would be examined and granted in English, French or German, the Commission said, and would be protected in all the countries participating in the scheme.
Companies in countries whose language is not English, French or German could file patents in their own language and be reimbursed the costs of its translation into one of those languages.