Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

IPR: a safe investment

For too long, safeguarding Intellectual Property Rights in Europe has been considered a costly and complex procedure which has deterred many companies, particularly SMEs, from protecting valuable knowledge and sharing it with prospective partners in R&D. If the EU is to advanc...
For too long, safeguarding Intellectual Property Rights in Europe has been considered a costly and complex procedure which has deterred many companies, particularly SMEs, from protecting valuable knowledge and sharing it with prospective partners in R&D. If the EU is to advance in an increasingly competitive global economy, it must establish a genuine Single Market for patents which, in turn, is able to create an environment favourable to innovation and investment. Having acknowledged the importance of the link between innovation, growth and employment, the European Commission has recently adopted policies outlining an ambitious series of measures to tackle this problem and to address the wider issues of IPR management.


Within the European Union, protecting industrial and intellectual property is rapidly becoming a strategic issue of particular relevance to innovation, growth and job creation. In 1996, the European Commission's Green Paper on Innovation1 acknowledged that overcoming unemployment involved "refusing fixed attitudes and old approaches, above all giving new impetus to Europe's capacity for innovation". With its First Action Plan for Innovation2 the Commission led the way by proposing to mobilise Community instruments to this end, in particular the Framework Research Programmes and Structural Funds.

Managing IPR

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) management covers a variety of issues from state-of-the-art searches at the planning stage to co-operation and finding contacts during R&D and licensing agreements in the marketing phase. By identifying intellectual property, effectively securing it and preparing the legal basis for its exploitation, individuals and companies alike can benefit from academic and industrial creativity and innovation. Consequently, IPR management plays a crucial role in technology transfer - the process of transforming results from the research laboratory into economic successes in the commercial sector.

IPR management falls into three categories:

Gathering information for the creation of new intellectual property, such as consulting scientific and patent literature before starting research; Protecting existing intellectual property assets, by identifying inventions, evaluation schemes to investigate which inventions are worth protecting with patents or other forms of IPR; and
Exploiting intellectual property assets, such as the decision-making process and strategies for identifying exploitation opportunities for RTD results, financial support, marketing of patented ideas, contract negotiations on confidentiality agreements, secrecy, licensing, etc.

Safety first

Throughout the Member States, it is becoming increasingly important for higher education institutes and industry alike to consider their intellectual property assets. The current situation appears fragmented as the importance of IPR management is often underestimated.

Higher education: Academic inventors tend to be judged and rewarded on their dissemination of new knowledge through leading scientific journals and the presentation of research results at conferences, rather than by the number of patents issued. Consequently, academics have been inclined to neglect patenting and other forms of IPR protection for their results, and many higher education institutions in the EU are still hesitant about responding to the new challenges offered by technology transfer.

However, as education budgets have been squeezed, some institutions have realised the growing need to be entrepreneurial, and have taken on active fund-raising to facilitate participation in RTD projects at national, European and international levels. Some have even developed suitable IPR policies or are establishing infrastructures favourable to the use and exploitation of IPR assets as an essential part of technology transfer. Several universities have set up internal infrastructures, such as Technology Transfer Offices or Industrial Liaison Offices (ILOs), to help manage the interface between education and industry. ILOs offer a range of services including the screening of technologies and markets, adapting technology transfer offers to industry demand, searching for clients, managing collaborative projects, fostering working relationships with industry and handling patenting and licensing activities. Similarly, NEICO (Network for European Innovation COoperation, see separate VIPS fiche) intends to promote innovation by extending the use of existing IPR tools and introducing new ones.

EU university pilot projects currently under way aim to:

enhance awareness of IPR, in particular, the patent protection and information system;
establish non-profit-making autonomous organisations to support the transfer of knowledge between university and industry;
create business incubators and university spin-offs to exploit fully academic research results;
organise discussion platforms and establish associations between university research officers and ILOs to enhance the university/industry interface.

Industry: Widely differing infrastructures and levels of IPR awareness currently exist in the EU's industrial sector - some large companies have extensive IPR management, while smaller firms tend to be less well equipped. In general, large companies value patents as important company assets, while SMEs and entrepreneurs often neglect IPR management. Internal infrastructures within large firms monitor inventions through to filing for a patent application, and support management of the company's patent portfolio, internal staff training and the dissemination of information on IPR protection.

Recent studies have also shown that industry often undervalues patent information. Two-thirds of the EU's 170,000 SMEs producing patentable inventions do not use the European patent system, preferring to rely on secrecy and `speed to market'. Measures provided by the First Action Plan for Innovation in Europe aim to improve the EU patenting system while raising European awareness of what is at stake.

EU-wide patent

The global growth of patented inventions increased dramatically from 220,000 in the 1960s to around 640,000 in the 1990s. But the use of patents to protect foreign markets differs between the US and the EU: one-third of all patents issued in Europe are of American origin, only 15% of US-issued patents come from Europe. This can be, at the same time, an indicator of the respective market valuation, but also of the propensity to patent in foreign markets.

The Action Plan identified the weaknesses in the EU system: it is too complex, expensive and only relatively effective because of its national fragmentation and the existence of both European and national patents.

In 1997, a Green Paper on patents (COM(97)314 final) led to the Commission proposal for an in-depth reform of the system. The resulting measures aim to improve the framework for obtaining patent protection in Europe by introducing a Community Regulation to establish a unitary patent valid throughout the EU (COM(99)42 final). A Community patent would significantly advance the management of patent rights in the Single Market and facilitate their enforcement. It would coexist with patents issued by national offices and the European Patent Office (EPO) to provide business with a choice of IPR protection.

Patent databases contain state-of-the-art technical knowledge, 80% of which cannot be found elsewhere. A professional search carried out before starting a research project can avoid conflict with current patents and may save substantial costs. The European Patent Organisation's groundbreaking patent database service - esp@cenet(r) - offers direct access to more than 30 million patent documents and a free source of patent information, thereby improving awareness at national and international level, particularly among individual innovators and SMEs.


Worries about sharing valuable knowledge with partners and concerns about the complexity and cost of protecting that knowledge still prevent many SMEs from undertaking joint research. And those who do `take the plunge' tend to enter into a partnership without fully understanding the IPR issues, simply to secure funding. The IPR-Helpdesk (website:; tel: +352-471 1111), set up in October 1998, aims to raise awareness of the importance of IPR in the process of technological innovation, and to promote the use of patent searches. The multilingual legal team answers queries on IPR received by the telephone hotline or on the website.

Future developments

A future Commission action line on Entrepreneurship and IPR awareness in Europe will define measures and priorities which, in conjunction with entrepreneurship training, will tackle the problem at an early stage, during the education of future engineers, scientists, technicians and managers. A possible future pilot action to support the efforts of national patent offices in promoting innovation as part of the EU's Fifth Framework Programme for Research is presently under investigation.

The Commission and the EPO will, for the first time, jointly promote the value of patents and patent information - PATINNOVA '99 will run back-to-back with the EPO's EPIDOS annual conference in the Sani Conference Centre at Kassandra, near Thessaloniki, Greece; 18-22 October 1999. A working party, comprising representatives of the Innovation Relay Centres and the IPR-Helpdesk, will be set up to define and coordinate cooperative activities.

1. Green Paper on Innovation, EUR-OP, Luxembourg, 1996, ISBN 92-827-6084-X.

2. The First Action Plan for Innovation in Europe, EUR-OP, Luxembourg, 1997, ISBN 92-827-9332-X. The Plan proposes a set of measures based on three major objectives: fostering an innovation culture; setting up a legal, regulatory and financial environment conducive to innovation; and gearing research more closely to innovation.

Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge
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