European Patent Office improves access with Google translations

On November 30, the European Patent Office (EPO) announced that it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Google.

Under the agreement, the EPO will use Google’s machine translation technology to translate patents into the languages of the 38 countries that it serves. In return, it will provide Google with access to its translated patents, enabling Google to optimise its machine translation technology. Google technology will be used to translate patents originating in Europe as well as patents originating in other regions of the world and enjoying protection in Europe.

What does this mean for the future of a unified European patent? What does this mean for Google’s future involvement in the patent industry?

Read on for our take on these issues and reasons why machine translation cannot replace human translation in the patent world.


This agreement promises access to translated patents in the languages of the EPO member states. (Based on the text of the agreement, it’s reasonable to assume it applies only to granted patents, not published applications.) This dissemination of information is good for the intellectual property community at large, but by itself may not be a huge benefit. All of these patents were previously freely available to the public, through sources such as esp@cenet, and could then be translated using a free service such as Google Translate. What this new mass translation project accomplishes will amount to convenience for those who don’t already have access to patent search systems with large translated databases.

It does, however, indicate that the EPO may be trying this machine translation project as a way to ease translation burdens if and when pan-European patent reform comes to fruition in the European Union. The EPO also had this to say:

The collaboration also aims to facilitate the decision process of the EU states in their attempt to simplify the introduction of a single pan-European patent. While the EPO provides a common entry point to obtain patents throughout Europe, patent owners must still validate and, where necessary, translate patents in each individual EU country. As a result, obtaining Europe-wide patent protection is significantly more expensive than in markets such as the US. A single EU patent could reduce costs and enhance legal certainty, giving businesses and innovators unified protection for their inventions.

It seems extremely unlikely that machine translated documents could ever be considered legally valid within the EU, but it is possible that Google’s machine translations will become part of a human-aided/machine-aided translation step if this trial is successful. It should be noted that the quality of Google’s machine translations will undoubtedly improve with access to such a large body of technical information to “teach” its translation algorithm. With this trial, Google has gotten its foot into the door of another patent office after previously working with the USPTO in their data-providing partnership. Additionally, you may recall that Google Patents was another high profile debut in the IP world. As Google grows larger and larger (on this same day Google was rumored to be close to buying Groupon) it remains to be seen whether this further foray into patents is a dalliance or part of a bigger and more concrete strategy.

As for machine translations replacing human translations by subject matter and legal experts? Don’t count on it. When companies are investing multiple millions of dollars in research and development, litigation cases, mergers and acquisitions, etc., they need accurate translation of patent claims, legal and technical documents in order to make the right decisions. While machine translation may seem “free, easy, immediate and painless,” important decisions involving foreign languages require spot-on professional grade translation work. You don’t want to be the one who saved a few dollars (by using a free machine translation) but missed (or lost) big opportunities.

Landon IP, the provider of Intellogist and the Intellogist Blog, specializes in patent, legal, and technical translations. We know that in a patent-related translation, a single mistranslated phrase (or word) can jeopardize a patent filing or one’s right to exercise patented claims. This is why our native language translators have expert knowledge of patents, the nuances of patent language, and all major technology disciplines. This unique combination of skills allows Landon IP to provide any type of legal or technical translation. Furthermore, our patent search experts work with the translation services team to fulfill our QuadCheck™ quality control process. This unique process, which is an expansion of the translation industry’s standard TEP process, identifies and resolves issues with the information presented in both the original and translated documents to further improve the quality and accuracy of the final translated deliverable.

I believe that this agreement between the EPO and Google is not the endgame for either, but a stepping stone towards a unified patent which incorporates machine-assisted translation steps. In that case or any other, legal documents such as patents must still undergo translations by human experts.

What do you think of this development between the EPO and Google? Tell us your reactions and predictions in the comments section below!

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This post was edited by Intellogist Team member Chris Jagalla. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company, Landon IP, a major provider of patent search, technical translation, and information services.

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9 Responses

  1. although expansion of google’s set of specifications, and a probable improvement on the machine translations in espacenet are welcome, as a professional searcher i would never rely upon either as a definitive result for a search. google patents should be considered as a guide, best left to people wanting a place to search for their wild ideas

  2. use Google to access to this function, or EPO?
    i just found a new button “Translate this text”appearing on the window of bibliographic data of one specific patent.

  3. EPO has been working on their own translation function for several years. I attended EPOPIC 2006 & 2008, and much was being made of their efforts at both. Check out their archived presentations.

    At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder why they were doing this when Google was already leading the way in translation, and getting into patents at the same time. It seemed like an ideal situation for collaboration.

  4. @insomniac I agree that as a searcher it shouldn’t be explicitly trusted, but more used as a wider initial net to cast.

    @Crystal I’m not sure how and when they’re implementing this feature, the EPO did not mention that in their press release. I believe that they had some translation ability before, but perhaps not “powered by Google.”

  5. See this website for EPO translation efforts http://www.pluto-patenttranslation.eu/

  6. And informations about the actual translation system : http://www.worldlingo.com/en/products_services/worldlingo_translator.html

  7. [...] public domain resource of technical data that can be used for this purpose.  (In related news,  Google recently announced an agreement with the European Patent Office that would allow them to use the EPO’s collections to improve their machine translation [...]

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