France launches government-backed patent agency

Having recently earned its spurs proving the Streisand Effect for its banning of the use of the terms ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ on national television, the French government is now looking to take on the role of National Patent Troll. Last week, government ministers Valérie Pécresse, Eric Besson and commissioner general for investment Rene Nicol launched France Brevets (‘Patents France’), a €100m project that will see the state buying up locally generated patents before turning broker and sub-licensing them on a global basis. One of the first signatories to the initiative is the country’s Institut Telecom.

According to the French government, patents filed for by universities and research institutions as well as private small-to-medium enterprises will be the primary focus of the initiative because they often don’t have the time or money to market their wares. While some commentators suggest that the initiative will provide a ready source of income to French universities and the like, others have been less welcoming, saying there’s no reason why research institutions shouldn’t capitalise more fully by retaining their intellectual property (IP) holdings.

At a potentially more controversial level, some observers have voiced concern that the initiative will merely encourage the over-monetisation of IP, creating a scenario similar to the US’s much-maligned patent system, where entire businesses have been built around acquiring patents and profiting from simply exercising royalty rights, rather than actually creating anything. Popular French online tech magazine Numerama claims that the number of patents granted in the country has doubled in less than 15 years – evidence, it says, of a commodity-style bubble rather than genuine creativity.

It’s a view that would appear to be borne out by the EU’s own Patent Office officials, who threatened strike action in both 2006 and 2008 over the ease with which patents were being granted. Protesters claimed that the European Patent Office was decentralising and granting as many patents as possible, motivated largely by the high fees that were generated each time a patent was granted.

The EU is currently planning to implement a cross-border patent system in which applicants will only have to lodge one application with the European Patent Office (EPO) to secure protection across 25 of the 27 EU member states that have signed up to the plan. The two sticklers are Italy and Spain, who have objected to the proposal that successful patents will be published in English, French or German. The objections are likely to slow down the enforcement of the agreement – a complaint has been lodged with the European Court of Justice, which is obliged to hear the case.

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