With information technology making online patent literature databases more accessible and complete than ever before, it is imperative to tackle the problem of languages in the most cost-effective manner possible.

The European Patent Office (EPO) considers the language in which a prior art reference is drafted to be legally irrelevant for determining whether that prior art reference forms part of the state of the art for a European patent or application. In addition, since the EPO has three official languages (English, German and French), anyone can file a European application or an opposition to a granted European patent in one of these languages without the need for a translation of the European application or related prosecution history, or of the opposition briefs or of any evidence relied upon in the opposition itself, and anyone can also plead in one of the official languages during opposition oral proceedings even if that language is not the language of the opposed patent.

Until recently, this circumstance could significantly increase the costs of operating with the EPO, owing to the need to provide an English translation of many documents submitted or cited in German or French.

For this reason, the EPO has launched the “patent translate” project, which aims to provide the automatic translation of European patent documents into as many languages as possible. Importantly, the languages now covered by the “patent translate” project not only include the languages of the countries that are members of the European Patent Convention, but also non-European languages which are widely used in many important fields of technology.

The “patent translate” project was launched in February 2012 and is the result of co-operation between Google, the EPO, the national Patent Offices of the EPO member states as well as other major non-European Patent Offices, which supply patent data in their languages to “train” the translation software.

In this context, the EPO has recently added the Japanese-English pair to the “patent translate” service, thereby making it possible for more than a million Japanese patent documents to be instantly translated into English without incurring any charges. This means that those who cannot read Japanese can now access Japanese patents in English, and Japanese companies and researchers can now read European patent documents in their own language.

In terms of the number of patent applications filed, the Japanese Patent Office ranks as one of the leading Offices worldwide. This means that Japanese patent documents have a high level of importance not only for their applicants but also for third-party applicants for European patents as well as for other patents globally.

After the inclusion of Japanese among the languages of the “patent translate” service, it is now possible to obtain an immediate translation to and from English for 21 languages, including Chinese. The EPO hopes that, by the end of 2014, the service will include not only the major Asian languages, but also Russian plus all 28 official languages of the EPO’s 38 member states. Keeping in mind that Espacenet, the EPO’s online patent database, already contains over 80 million patent documents, it is clear that the ability of this service to provide cost-effective access to patent documents will bring consequent economic benefits for all those interested in seeking IP protection in Europe.

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