Archive | 2011, March | (2) posts

The EPO starts cooperation with Google to provide machine translation of patents

The EPO starts cooperation with Google to provide machine translation of patents

On 24 March, the EPO and Google signed an agreement to collaborate on machine translation of patents. Using Google Translate technology, the EPO will offer translations into 28 European languages, and into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. In order to be able to adapt the machine translation to the specific language used in patents, Google will get access to the accumulated mass of translated patents that is available at the EPO. At first, machine translations between the three official languages of the EPO, English, French and German, will be available. Later, the other languages will be added.

There have been prophecies that machine translations will break down all language barriers. In patent databases, machine translations into English of at least the abstracts of the patent applications are often available, but the quality of these translations is questionable. Trying to sort out the interesting documents using badly translated abstracts is tedious at best, and sometimes errors in the translations even make it impossible to recognize documents that are really important. With a basic knowledge of the original language of the abstract, the researcher may spot some of the errors and still find the relevant documents, but if the original language is completely foreign, the researcher is lost. Anyone who has tried the experiment of translating back and forth between a few languages using machine translation knows that the original meaning is quickly distorted, making the translation process an advanced version of the children’s whispering game.

The ambitions of the EPO and Google in their quest to provide machine translations are commendable. There is most definitely a need for quick access also to patent documents in languages other than English, or whatever the language skills of the person searching the patent literature. Actually translating, manually, all patents of the world from other languages into English would of course be a help, but it would not be feasible. Then, think of translating between all the official languages of the EU, not to mention Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian, and the task becomes insurmountable. Therefore, machine translation is necessary. If training of the Google Translate tool on patent texts improves the quality of the machine translations and reduces the risk of completely misleading machine translations, this will be a valuable service to anyone searching the patent literature. However, once an interesting document has been found and a more complete understanding of it is sought, manual translation will most likely still be necessary. The day is not yet here, if ever it will come, when real, live, human translators will be redundant as a profession. And then, interpreting the scope of protection of the patent is a whole other story.

Nina Milanov, European Patent Attorney

Most comprehensive patent reform in almost 60 years approved by US senate

Most comprehensive patent reform in almost 60 years approved by US senate

Historic breakthrough as USA gets to grips with “first-to-invent”, the enormous backlog of patent applications and simplifying procedures for filing patents in the USA.

On Tuesday 8 March 2011, the US Senate voted to approve the nation’s most comprehensive patent reform since 1952, entitled the “America Invents Act of 2011”. Among many other changes, the reform adopts a “first-to-file” patent system that is more in line with patent practice throughout the rest of the world. The next step in the legislative process is a vote by the House of Representatives.

According to long-held principles of the existing patent law, patents in the US have been awarded according to the “first-to-invent” principle. One consequence of this regime has been that researchers and developers have been forced to keep careful logs of their inventions to be able to prove that they were the first to develop a particular product or technology. In Europe and in most of the rest of the world, there is instead the “first-to-file” principle, which simply means that a patent is awarded to the first of multiple independent inventors to apply for a patent.

Among many proposals in the new legislation package, the most significant change, at least as far as us Europeans are concerned, is the endorsement of the “first-to-file” system. Intended or not, this signals that the US patent laws are becoming more like the European model (or, more correctly, the model used by the rest of the world). Another important change is the introduction of more ways to question the validity of a pending or granted patent without having to engage in a full-blown court trial. Other measures are directed to dealing with the nation’s massive backlog of patent applications (more than 700 000 at the latest count).

In my opinion, the new law (if passed) will eliminate some of the difficulties that small European companies and individual inventors have when filing for patent protection in the US, because of the differences in our respective systems. The shift to a first-to-file system will also, in time, make it easier to ascertain who is the rightful owner of a third-party patent. This should make life somewhat easier for small research companies and individual inventors. For example, the change removes one of the main reasons for having to write up detailed lab journals, and it will also make it cheaper and simpler to question the validity of blocking patents.

There are also minor amendments that aim to make the process as a whole less bureaucratic, such as a relaxation of the requirements for inventor signatures on filing. In my mind, foreign and US firms alike will benefit from the increased harmonisation and simplified rules, and the changes will make a big difference for everyone who applies for, prosecutes, trades in or litigates patents in the US.

Various efforts have been made over a number of years to push through this major overhaul of US patent law. As recently as in 2009 the proposal reached the House of Representatives without being enacted into law on that occasion. Now that the Senate has said yes to the proposal, the next stage is for the House of Representatives to vote on the issue. Spokespersons for the Senate Judiciary Committee say that a proposed bill is just around the corner.

In a comment from the White House, President Barack Obama says that he is pleased that the proposal has been approved, describing it as “the most significant patent reform in over half a century”, according to Reuters.

Niklas Mattsson, European Patent Attorney, Partner