BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European biotechnology sector could benefit from a new form of patent being proposed for the European Union as part of the new EU policy of promoting innovation as a key element to economic and employment growth.

The European Commission recommended last week the creation of a lightweight patent - a "community patent" - to give inventors the option of obtaining a single patent legally valid throughout the EU, at reduced cost. The proposal would significantly lessen the burden on business and encourage innovation by making it cheaper to obtain a patent and by providing a clear legal framework in case of dispute.

The proposal "has a logic we like," said Paul Muys of EuropaBio, the European biotech industry association. "It will make it easier and simpler for the smaller firms that our member associations represent. Not only will it reduce translation costs, but it also will provide a single jurisdiction and a single legal framework for all the 15 EU member states," he told BioWorld International.

At present, patents in Europe are awarded either on a national basis or through the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany. But these so-called European patents essentially are only a bundle of national patents based on a single application procedure. Each EU member state can require translations, and because national courts remain competent, disputes can lead to 15 different legal proceedings, with different procedural rules and the risk of different outcomes. A typical European patent costs three to five times more than its Japanese and U.S. counterparts: approximately $50,000, of which a quarter or more is accounted for by translation costs. The new proposal would cut translation costs to around $2,000, and add legal certainty.

Bo Hammer Jensen, head of intellectual property protection at Novo Nordisk in Denmark, and also chairman of EuropaBio's working party on the subject, told BioWorld International the new measure would be welcome because translations are particularly expensive for biotechnology products since patent applications are often long and weighty. Part of the problem for biotechnology companies is that they are required to present their applications in a specific format. "I described 16 protein sequences in five pages on an application for my company, but when it was presented in the mandatory format it took up 100 pages," he said. "It is important to limit this."

In addition, he said it was important to improve coherency between national court rulings, which had repeatedly led to inconsistencies in the biotechnology field. Notably, he recalled, the UK courts found that Medeva had not infringed elements in a Biogen patent that had been considered valid across Europe.

The European commissioner responsible for the single market, Frits Bolkestein, said a community patent would help ensure that European research and technological and scientific innovation can successfully be applied by industry and commerce. "Often in the past Europe has provided the research, but it is others who have used it to commercial advantage," he said. "A single patent will slash the costs of patent coverage while guaranteeing a high level of protection."

The Union of Industrial and Employers' Confeder ations of Europe also welcomed the plan as a logical move toward further completion of the EU single market. It cites its own data demonstrating that the current system for obtaining and maintaining patents in Europe is less supportive of innovation than in the U.S. and Japan in terms of time and costs.

At present, the Union said, the average cost of patenting an invention in eight countries of Europe is $30,000 (of which almost 40 percent is taken up by translations), compared with $5,000 in the U.S.

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