Patent chief: Kyoto sparked clean tech revolution

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The Kyoto protocol triggered a surge in new patent applications in the clean energy sector, Benoît Battistelli, president of the European Patent Office (EPO), told EURACTIV in an interview.

Benoît Battistelli is president the European Patent Office (EPO).

He was speaking to Gary Finnegan.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You have published a new study looking at the impact of the Kyoto Protocol on the number of new patent applications in the clean energy sector. What is the key finding?

Since the introduction of Kyoto there has been an increase in green energy sector patents. We're not saying it's the only factor that led to the surge in new patent applications but it is a major factor. It shows that the market is created by public decisions on regulations.

In this field, things are developing very quickly. The rate of progress of patents is expanding rapidly. There has been a 20% increase every year in this field, compared to a 5% average increase in other fields. This shows that technological development has not been prevented by the patent system, as some have suggested.

Where are these patents being filed? Which countries are leading in this area?

It has become clear that the bulk of patents are concentrated in just six countries. 80% of the patents in this [green energy] sector are found in Japan, the US, Germany, Korea, France and the UK.

However, in some specific fields, the emerging countries – Brazil, India and China – are playing a key role. In wind energy, China has gone from being nowhere five years ago to being the leading player globally. For India and Brazil, photovoltaic technology and hydropower are the major sources of patents.

Has China already overtaken Europe in the wind energy field?

China has made huge progress and has published figures suggesting it is overtaking Europe in terms of patent filing. I would add a note of caution. They present as patents things we would not call patents. However, it is obvious that it has become a very active player and we are working very closely with the Chinese authorities on technical matters. The Chinese patent office has a similar structure to the EPO.

How can the data you have published on clean energy patents be used?

We have identified hundreds of thousands of patents in key low-carbon energy technologies, who own them, where they are, and if it's licensed. This is an unprecedented information tool available to all online, which can be a major boost for businesses in this sector.

How will the new system help businesses to find information on patents in this sector?

It's important to classify patent applications so you can find them more easily. Under the classic classification system it can be very difficult to find what you are looking for, so we have introduced specific categories for wind, carbon capture, hydroelectricity and so on. We found that 400,000 of the 60 million patents in our system are relevant for green technology.

This tool will now be available free of charge to everyone via our website. It can be used by entrepreneurs, politicians, academics, journalists – whoever wants it. And it won't just be a one-off study of the current patent landscape. It will be updated daily by our examiners, so it will continue to improve.

What are the implications for climate talks?

This kind of information has become central to climate negotiations where the role of patents is controversial – many people consider patents an obstacle to technology transfer. But until now, the discussion has not been based on hard data. We decided to do a detailed analysis to present the reality.

This study will feed into the debate on climate change and technology transfer. It means people now know what they are talking about. The paradox is that patents are considered by some to be a brake to the dissemination of technical advances when in fact they facilitate progress.

Would you expect another surge in innovation in this sector if an international deal on climate were reached?

Yes, the key message is that the policy and regulatory framework influences how businesses invest. In all environmental issues the market is decided by the regulatory framework. The market needs to be framed.

Your study also pointed to an untapped potential to license these technologies to developing countries. What does this mean in practice?

Our survey found there is limited licensing activities to developing countries and that it is confined mainly to China, India and Brazil. However, 70% of respondents said they are prepared to offer more flexible terms when licensing to entities in developing countries with limited financial capacity.

Licensing is very important but it's not yet at its potential. The reasons for this are not only intellectual property rules. It's more related to larger macroeconomic factors such as political stability, finance, and the general business environment.

What is your view on the ongoing discussions on the EU patent?

I am rather optimistic. There is very large support for the Commission's proposal on the language issue, which is based on the EPO's language regime.

We will work closely with the Commission, especially in developing the machine translation tools necessary to develop high quality translation. There has been good progress in this field. At the October meeting of the EPO's Administrative Council I will propose that we launch a project that will make it possible for all EU languages to be translated by machines within three years. The system would be capable to translating from all languages into English, and from English into all languages.

We are not part of the negotiation process but are providing any technical expertise and knowledge that can be helpful.

What is your view on the proposal for a single patent litigation system which is currently being considered by the European Court of Justice? There have been reports that this proposal could be rejected by the court.

We have seen the paper from the Advocate General but are waiting for the opinion of the full court. It is important to create a harmonised litigation system for Europe and we think what has been proposed is very balanced.

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