EURO ZONE

Patent Pandemonium

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A patent lawyer fears the EPO’s continued lack of a unitary patent system threatens to cheapen the “Made in Germany” brand and the quality of patents across Europe.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Benoît Battistelli took over as EPO president in 2010.
    • His reforms reduced costs by 20 percent and backlog by 25 percent, while increasing the number of patents issued, but has made pressured employees unhappy.
    • It seems unlikely that the unitary patent system will come about during Mr. Battistelli’s term.
  • Audio

    Audio

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collage-cotton
Hold on a cotton-picking minute... Source: DEUREX

As the owner of a wax-making company, Günter Hufschmid never expected to be at the forefront of a technological breakthrough. His Bavarian firm, DEUREX, produces wax for the paint and varnish industry, a field not exactly known for being on the cutting edge of chemistry. But one day in 2010, one of his employees confused the dials for pressure and temperature, and overnight the machine spat out 10 tons of white cotton that turned out to have miraculous properties in the fight against oil spills: one kilogram of the cotton can absorb 6 kilograms of oil floating on water.

Aware that he had chanced upon the invention of a lifetime, Mr. Hufschmid wrote to the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich to register his patent. It seemed like the most reasonable choice for a small business rather than hiring expensive patent lawyers. Nobody at the EPO called him back, but the bureaucrats did reject his application twice. So Mr. Hufschmid made a nuisance of himself and insisted on presenting his cotton in person. After more than three years, he was finally given a date in a branch office in The Hague. The 20-minute demonstration went well. But that was only the beginning of his troubles.

Mr. Hufschmid got his patent from the EPO, but it is not valid throughout Europe. What representatives of the institution failed to mention was that he would still have to apply for patents separately in each member state, in the local language.

More and more entrepreneurs of Germany’s small- and medium-sized Mittelstand firms are complaining that they can’t get their new discoveries patented. But those inventions are the secret behind “Made in Germany.” What’s gone wrong?

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