"We have left no stone unturned. Although we've made progress we've fallen short of unanimity by just a small margin," said Belgian Minister for Economy and Reform Vincent Van Quickenborne.
Despite new compromises put on the table by the Belgian Presidency of the EU, Italy and Spain continued to insist that any patent must also be translated into their languages. The European Commission had proposed that an EU-wide patent be translated into English as well as French or German, the three working languages of the EU.
"We cannot accept discrimination," said Diego Lopez Garrido, the Spanish state secretary for the EU European Union. "Non-discrimination is one of the crucial elements of the EU patent."
Political leaders have been trying for years to strike a deal that would simplify the process of protecting innovative products in the different member states, lower costs and create a judicial system to handle disputes. European countries spend 10 times more on patents than their American and Japanese rivals.
"It's a huge disadvantage for European businesses compared to the US," Jan Muehlfeit, European chairman at Microsoft, said in an interview. "It's very costly, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises."
Marc Dulst could not agree more. He spent three-and-a-half years researching a new technique to conserve wine after the bottle was opened.
"We chose 11 countries (to patent the device) and the cost will be 33,000 euros, and if I compared that to the cost for the United States, it's only 11,000 euros," said Dulst, whose company Qivino is based in Belgium.
"We didn't take countries like Romania, Slovakia or Turkey because the cost to translate is high," he explained.
Belgium holds the rotating presidency of the EU and has pledged to push through legislation for a single patent by the end of its term in December. Belgian Minister Van Quickenborne has worked hard to forge a compromise, and his latest efforts appeared to have swayed a few reluctant members, notably Poland and Portugal.
The proposed compromises included:
- Companies that accidentally infringe on a patent because it there was no translation in their native language may not be held liable for damages.
- Funds to pay for the costs of translations would be provided at the beginning of the process.
- For all patents, regardless of language, a full and manual translation into one other official EU language chosen by the applicant would have to be provided within a 12-year period.
Many European Council members know the patent problem is hurting the Union's competitiveness and hindering the growth of many companies.
"China is developing a highly effective form of patent protection. If it's not protected here, it will be protected elsewhere," said Michel Barnier, EU commissioner for the internal market and services.
But Italy, like Spain, was unswayed. "We understand this is a matter of urgency, but the matter will require further in-depth discussion," said Andrea Ronchi, Italy's Minister for European Policies.