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Business

Protecting Patents at a Snail's Pace

In the age of globalization, international patents are needed to protect intellectual property. The European Patent Office in Munich is charged with clearing patents for most European countries.

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The European Patent Office receives over 160,000 patent applications each year

Frank Kurth is an inventor. He demonstrates his invention like it's his own child. He blows a short melody into a microphone that's connected to a computer, which displays the exact notes on the screen and replays them. The computer then matches the notes against its database of songs and symphonic works. Within less than a second, it has already identified the song. The program searches for strings of notes in the database and matches them with other works that repeat the pattern. In this case, it lists two songs -- the German children's song "All My Ducks," and the pop song "Candle in the Wind" by Elton John.

A program that allows music titles to be researched by using simple notes has tremendous commercial capabilities -- computer programmer Kurth of the University of Bonn and his co-inventor, Michael Clausen, are convinced. Their program can also be scaled for use in identifying radio music. For example, he says, someone could record a song they hear on the radio using their cell phone and then call a number, replay the music and immediately find out the name of the song.

But as with any invention, there's always the threat someone might copy Kurth's technology, bring it on the market and cash in on his idea. That's why Kurth and his colleague have registered their music-recognition machine with the European Patent Office in Munich. By doing so, they can obtain an international patent.

Three hurdles

Emil Berliner, Erfinder des Grammophons

Creating an invention is only half the battle.

Obtaining the patent is a three-pronged process. First, the EPO has to determine whether the Bonn inventor's technology is new as well as whether or not the invention is indeed something that can be patented. Second, it can't be a technology or idea that is obvious -- it has to be original and unique. The third determining factor is whether or not the invention is commercially viable. All three criteria must be fulfilled before a patent can be awarded.

The European Patent Office has vastly simplified the process of obtaining an international patent for many Europeans. Before it was created, an inventor often had to apply for patents in each of the individual countries where the person wanted to seek protection for a technology.

Founded in 1977, EPO is based in Munich. At the time of its formation, 21 different European countries participated in the cross-border project. Though all European Union member states also participate in the EPO, it is not an official EU institution and, thus, also has a number of non-EU members including Turkey. Today, the EPO's roster has swelled to 28 member states.

When applying for a patent, an inventor must decide whether to apply for a single patent for one country or for an international patent valid in a numerous or all of the EPO member states. Individuals also have the option of applying for a global patent, which is recognized in up to 120 countries. The latter is an expensive undertaking and is mostly used by large pharmaceutical multinationals.

Language barriers

Although the office has simplified patent applications, they can still be a drawn out process. Depending on the complexity of an invention, years can pass before the application has been fully reviewed. One of the sticking points is the fact that the description of the patent must be translated into the languages of each of the countries where it is expected to be applied.

"Let's assume you also want to secure a patent in Germany," explained EPO's Rainer Osterwald, "then the translation of your patent application has to be sent to the German Patent Office. Or if you want to have it covered in France, you have to translate it into French and so on."

Cautious optimism

Kurth and colleague Clausen submitted the patent application for their music-recognition machine three years ago. They haven't even begun to get the translations done because the application is still in the review stage. But Kurth remains patient and said he hopes the application will be approved within a year-and-a-half.

Until then, at least they've got some musical entertainment to help them pass the time.

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