The EPC is a cornerstone on which European innovation has prospered over the last 50 years — and is just as relevant today as the day it was signed, António Campinos writes.
On Thursday, Europe marks a little-known watershed moment in its post-war history.
Fifty years ago today, on 5 October 1973, amid a turbulent economic and political climate, 16 European nations committed to the ideal that technological progress should transcend national borders and signed the European Patent Convention (EPC).
The legal treaty initiated the establishment of a European patent system, which today comprises 39 member states and a growing number of "validation states" — countries outside of Europe where you can also obtain a European patent.
This encompasses a technology market of approximately 700 million people, equivalent in size to the combined populations of the United States, Brazil, Canada, Japan, and Korea.
What matters today isn't the system's size, but rather the prosperity and the societal progress it has enabled by helping to bring exciting new technologies to market.
Life-changing answers to crises
The industries in Europe that use patents intensively are today responsible for just under a fifth of Europe’s GDP and around one in every five jobs. Its products and servicestouch around a quarter of the world’s population.
Most importantly, rights conferred by the European Patent are empowering inventors from Portugal to Poland to bring their breakthrough products to market, safely and swiftly.
Just take the example of Katalin Karikó, who won the Lifetime Achievement category at the EPO's European Inventor Award in 2022, and has now been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her work was crucial in developing effective mRNA vaccines to slow the global COVID-19 pandemic.
These innovations not only enhance our daily lives but also contribute to addressing some of the most profound crises confronting humanity. We need only tune in to any mainstream news bulletin to see that, from climate change and natural disasters to famine, there is no shortage of crises.
Yet we have only some of the answers. For example, we know that half the technologies needed to shift to a net zero future are still stuck in the prototype or demonstration stage.
European patents can tackle emerging challenges
Given this context and the natural contemplation that arises during a milestone anniversary, it's prudent to consider whether the EPC remains up to the task of effectively addressing these formidable challenges. And to question whether the EPC can deliver the patent system and the sustainable future we all need for the next 50 years.
I believe so. The EPC is for many reasons precisely the tool that can help us achieve sustainable development and tackle emerging challenges, many of which are already at our doorstep, and comprehensively articulated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The European patent, renowned for its high quality, legal robustness, and extensive market reach, inspires significant investor confidence.
A clear illustration of this is the record €34 billion that was raised last year by European start-ups pioneering climate-friendly technologies.
The market exclusivity and predictability conferred by a high-quality European patent, however, is just one aspect of our patent system’s enduring appeal.
The EPC has also enshrined the obligation to make patent data public — a cornerstone of the patent contract. This helps inventors to learn from and improve upon cutting-edge technologies and, crucially, keeps the innovation cycle constantly moving forward.
A treasure trove of blueprints and diagrams
The European Patent Office, which administers the European patent, offers a free-to-use patent search tool, Espacenet, that gives members of the public access to over 140 million patent documents.
Imagine them as a treasure trove of technical blueprints, detailed diagrams and written descriptions — akin to user manuals for cutting-edge ideas.
Great efforts are made to ensure that these documents, which are increasing daily in complexity and volume, are easy for everyone to navigate and understand, whether you’re a seasoned patent attorney or a first-time inventor.
This involves tapping into the immense potential of AI for translating patent documents across multiple languages, including Mandarin Chinese.
Meanwhile, budding inventors can also leverage smart search platforms dedicated to the latest technologies on everything from tackling coronavirus and wildfires to promising clean energy breakthroughs.
Furthermore, insight reports on topics like the hydrogen economy highlight the latest technology trends which empower governments and private sector leaders to make more informed strategic decisions.
These studies also lead to other more alarming findings that call for greater action. Our latest report on women’s participation in inventive activity found that fewer than 1 in 7 inventors in Europe are women.
Lessons learned over the decades will push us onward
This leads naturally to our ultimate test: accessibility. Empowering researchers, scientists and independent inventors with patent intelligence is one thing, but how do we ensure that barriers to entry into the patent system are removed so that issues such as cost and complexity are no longer deterrents to underrepresented entities like SMEs, micro-enterprises and research centres?
After all, these demographics are so often the ones pioneering market-disrupting solutions. Yet they currently account for just a fifth of patent applications despite representing over half of European patent applicants.
The recent launch of the European patent with unitary effect is actively working to address many of the challenges surrounding sustainability and accessibility.
Now we have a single patent, for a single renewal fee, in a single currency, under a single legal system, before a single Unified Patent Court for the 17 participating countries — rising in time to a potential 27 nations and any others joining the EU family.
Maximum protection for minimum administrative burden. Little wonder we are already seeing positive signs of its adoption from smaller business entities.
Fundamentally, we owe the Unitary Patent to the EPC, which not only foresaw its existence but provides for the patent grant process on which this new patent is based.
As a result of all these advantages, the European Patent Convention can deliver the sustainable future we need.
I am confident that it is the very same qualities enshrined in the mission of our office five decades ago that will ensure the continued success of Europe's patent system in the years ahead, and that our ability to overcome society's most daunting challenges is bound to the EPC.
António Campinos serves as President of the European Patent Office (EPO).
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