July 31, 2012

Technology: A European Patent Office, 222 Years Later than the US

After the American Century

The first patent issued by the US government was approved July 31, 1790. The document was signed by George Washington himself. In the early years one of Thomas Jefferson's duties as a member of the cabinet, was to supervise the patent process. It soon became too great a burden and people had to be hired to do this work full time.
The first US patent, signed by George Washington in 1790

That first patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins for a process for making potash and pearl ashes to be used in fertilizer.For a largely agricultural nation, this was an appropriate beginning.

Since then, more than six million patents have been issued in the United States, and each of them has enjoyed the protection of federal law in all of the individual states. In contrast, Europe has long struggled to reach the place where the United States was in 1790. Patents are more costly and much harder to defend in Europe, even today, because of the multitude of national jurisdictions, varying regulations, different languages, and complex procedures. 

During the last year, the EU finally drew up an agreement that will help solve some of these problems, by establishing a more coherent system. The negotiations have lasted 40 years. At the end of June, the three biggest economies in their usual squabbling way carved up the court into three parts, with the pharmaceutical patents to be issued from London, the mechanical ones from Munich, and all the rest from Paris.

This division is silly, and assumes an absurdly neat division of intellectual property with no fuzzy boundaries, but it is evidently the best the EU can do. The new system will create specializations and potential differences between the three sites. Law firms will need to have offices in all three cities if they want to offer full service to corporate customers. In short, the result will not be as efficient or as inexpensive as it might have been with a single location.

Still, it is an improvement. For the first time, inventors in many European nations can get just one patent that protects their discoveries in all the other member states. One would have thought such a clearly good idea would have been part of the original EU treaty, or at the very least that it would not have taken 40 years to negotiate. 

So, the EU is still not where the US was in 1790, when all patents were issued from one office. But it is a big step in the right direction. It almost looks like the EU wants to be competitive.