Patent Translation: Protecting Your Ideas Globally


black lightbulb with patent written inside against pink background and "how to protect your ideas globally" written in white underneath

"Thou Shalt Not Steal."

You can steal a car, a wallet, or even a girlfriend – metaphorically, otherwise it’s kidnapping. 

You can steal other people’s customs and practices – it’s called cultural appropriation and fashion designers do it all the time.

Finally, you can steal ideas. And although an idea is the most abstract and intangible concept you can find, having it stolen can lead to financial loss, wounded pride, and a lifetime of regret.

And how are ideas protected? By patents.

And how are they protected globally? By accurate patent translation.

What Is a Patent?

six dice on top of one another spelling PATENT against black background

A patent is, essentially, a right. This right is given to an inventor by the government for a certain period of time and prevents the invention from being exploited (used, sold, etc.) by other people.

IMPORTANT: Patents are territorial. If you file a patent in the US, the patent will have no effect in a foreign country and you must file one in each country where you want your invention to be protected. 

Virtually every country has its own patent law, so if you wish to file a patent outside the US, you must do so following the requirements of the specific country. 

For example, in most foreign countries, you cannot publish your invention before application, or you will see the right to a patent denied. Plus, if you eventually obtain the patent, maintenance fees are required.

Why Patent? Ask Meucci

Etching graphic of Antonio Meucci with golden telephone handle against yellow background

Trivia Question: Who invented the telephone?

Answer: Alexander Graham Bell, of course. 

Correct. Or maybe not. 

Alexander Graham Bell is indeed credited with being the inventor of the telephone because he was the one to patent “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically . . . by causing electrical undulations.” 

However, the story behind the invention that changed the world is rather more complicated and involves an Italian immigrant: Antonio Meucci. Born in Florence, Meucci moved to New York, where he developed the design of a “talking telegraph” (he called it “telettrofono”) in 1860. In 1871, he filed a temporary patent (caveat) for his invention. 

Due to hardships (his wife was sick, and his business endeavors were not very successful), however, Meucci could not pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, and this enabled Bell, who had conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci's materials had been stored, to file his own patent. 

In 1887, the US Government moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation, a case that the Supreme Court found viable and remanded for trial. Unfortunately, Meucci died in October 1889, the Bell patent expired in January 1893, and the case was discontinued as moot.

Only very recently, on June 11, 2002, did the US House of Representatives pass a Resolution honoring Meucci’s contributions and work. 

Too little, too late. Meucci’s invention changed the world, but he did not live to see his role acknowledged and credited.

Poor Meucci’s fate is just an example. Einstein’s theory of relativity and Thomas Edison’s the light bulb are equally controversial patents, with Henri Poincaré and Heinrich Göbel as rightful inventors. 

The problem was the same in all these cases: the invention had not been duly patented, and somebody else came along and simply took (or stole) the chance.

What Can Be Patented?

Young boy with big glasses wearing helmet written _thinker_ on it and a lighted lightbulb on top of it

Ideas, we said. Which, of course, find their application to become devices, methods, etc.

In the US, patentable inventions must be objectively useful and fall under one of these four main categories:

  • Machine (i.e., a functional item consisting of – usually moving – interacting parts)
  • Manufacture (i.e., a functional item with no moving parts)
  • Composition of matter (i.e., a combination of chemicals)
  • Process (i.e., a series of steps for doing something)

Aside from being considered as patentable subject matter, the other two criteria for patentability include: 

  • novelty (different from anything else patented, sold, or publicly used before)
  • non-obviousness (meaning that someone of ordinary skill in a relevant area could not easily come up with the same invention based on prior art).

What Cannot Be Patented?

Vintage photograph of man with perpetual motion machine

It may sound obvious, but patent offices probably receive all sorts of applications, and they thought it best to make things clear.

Among the items you cannot patent are laws of nature (!) or items that are contrary to the public good (you cannot patent a process for making a nuclear bomb, for example).

Oh, and you cannot patent a perpetual motion machine. Too bad, isn’t it? 

However, they keep an open mind and will make an exception if you can provide a working prototype. 

The Patent Cooperation Treaty

Engraving of Medieval people in robes during a treaty

If you want to make sure somebody on the other side of the world does not come up with an idea suspiciously similar to yours, the process is indeed rather complicated.

Thankfully, a diplomatic conference in Washington, D.C. in June 1970 negotiated the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

Its purpose is to assist applicants who wish to receive patent protection for their inventions abroad, support patent offices, and help the public access technical information relating to patented inventions.

By filing one international patent application under the PCT, applicants can simultaneously seek protection for an invention in many countries (currently 156, including the U.S.).

So, once you file one patent application in the US, you need to obtain a license from the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and then you can apply for a patent abroad.

When Are Patent Translation Services Necessary?

Arigato (Japanese for Thank You) against light blue background

If you need to have your patent filed in a country where English is the official language (such as Canada, India, the UK, and many African countries), that’s fine. No translation is required. You’re good to go.

If, however, you dream big and want your idea to conquer the world… Well, you have some translating to do.

Because if you want exclusive rights in a foreign country, your patent will need to be in the language spoken in that part of the world

Of course, there are a couple of shortcuts: Arabic will allow you to cover most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, just like Spanish will cover most of Central and Southern America.

Patents and Languages

crossed microphone depicting mute sign against yellow background

The US Congress resolution recognizing Meucci’s role in the invention of the telephone says he had “limited [knowledge of] English” (he immigrated to the US in his forties) and “his grasp of the language was not very good”.

Linguistic difficulties, alongside the inventor’s financial strain, contributed to Meucci losing the patent to Bell

Filing a patent is the best way to ensure your idea/product becomes successful and remains competitive. If you wish your success to be international, then you must hold a patent in each jurisdiction where your idea/product is marketed, and it must be translated into the relevant language.

Easier said than done. 

Patents Certificates are Very Complex Technical Documents

a complex mathematical formula hand-written against white background

The wording they use is very specific, as is the terminology

Whoever is called upon to translate a patent must be either a subject matter expert or a highly skilled technical translator, otherwise, the patent will lack the necessary accuracy.

The language used must be clear, concise, and direct. In other words, the translation must be as literal as possible, while also considering the specific technical jargon and formats required by the patent offices in different countries.

What Happens if the Translation Is Not Good?

orange ink illustration of man holding his face with a palm against blue background

It must not be overlooked that patents are legal documents

If the translator or language service provider is not up to the task, the consequences can be dire, indeed.

In particular:

  • the application can be rejected by the patent office in an otherwise favorable market;
  • the patent protection level given in the various jurisdictions may be inconsistent;
  • errors in translation may lead to financial consequences, legal claims or even litigation;
  • if errors are spotted before it’s too late, you may still have to review your documents and this means you have to endure extra costs;

checking and correcting a less-than-satisfactory translation means wasting time. And when you want to have your idea patented, time is fundamental. Somebody else may beat you to it and you could end up like Meucci.

Information and Filing Translations

Christopher Latham Sholes litograph, who worked from 1867 to 1872 to build the first commercially successful typewriter based on a patent held by himself and James Densmore

When translating patents, we normally make a distinction between: 

  • Filing translation (targeted at patent legal professionals, office employees, and patent licensees. i.e.: the people in charge of evaluating applications. Translations for filing are basically the official record of the patent in the foreign country where you decided to file it);
  • Information translation (used when legal evidence is required on patents that have already been filed; in this case, the translation may not involve the whole document but only parts of it).

Is Machine Translation a Good Idea?

ink illustration of industrial machine

There’s no denying it: Machine Translation is here to stay, and when it comes to technical texts (particularly patents) it is already widely used. 

The EPO (European Patent Office) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) have even made their MT tools available for use on their websites.

Machine translation is undeniably convenient: it’s fast and cost-effective. 

However, we cannot stress enough the importance of error-free patent translation. Any machine translation must be carefully reviewed (the review of MT is called post-editing) by qualified professional translators specializing in the relevant subject matter.

TL;DR: Patent Translation in a Nutshell

comic book style bubbles with text saying _too long; didn't read

  • A patent is a right given to an inventor by the government that prevents others from exploiting the invention.
  • Patents are territorial, so if you want protection in multiple countries, you must file a patent application for each one.
  • To be eligible for a patent, an invention must be useful, novel, and non-obvious.
  • Ideas that cannot be patented include laws of nature and things contrary to the public good.
  • The Patent Cooperation Treaty allows applicants to seek protection for an invention in multiple countries with one international application. 
  • When filing for a foreign patent, you may need to provide a translation of your documents into the relevant language (unless English is spoken there). 
  • Translating patents requires special expertise due to their technical nature and specific terminology.   If done poorly, consequences can include rejection of applications or inconsistency in protection levels across jurisdictions.

Choosing The Right Partner For Your Patent Translation

LingPerfect team members' headshots in black and white

If Meucci had known what you know now and met LingPerfect, today, the telephone would be associated with his name and not Bell’s.

With our professional translation and localization services in 200+ languages, backed by ISO 9001:2015 & 17100:2015 certification, we can provide the support you need to file your patents anywhere in the world.

Invent away, we’ll take care of the rest.

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