Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Industry Reacts Negatively to EPO and Google Deal. But Should They?

The EPO (European Patent Office) announced today that it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Google Translate to automatically translate patents into the languages of the 38 countries that it serves.

The immediate response in the social media forums was quite negative, as most reactions involving Google and machine translation of late. But looking closely at the press-release, we see that "the collaboration aims to offer faster and cheaper fit-for-purpose translations of patents for companies, inventors and scientists in Europe."(our emphasis)

What this means is that the goal is to provide good enough translations, not perfect translations. Further in the release, the EPO states that "the partnership with Google to create machine translation tools for patents will help inventors, engineers and R+D teams to retrieve relevant documents efficiently - in their own language - from our wealth of published patent information." This means that the purpose is to allow people to search the EPO database for patents that have been already published, something that falls exactly into Google's expertise: Searchability.And probably something that those professionals already do on their own by copying and pasting information into Google Translate.

As discussed in a previous post, the EU is trying to promote the adoption of a single EU patent system, which is facing some resistance in the European Court of Justice because the court's Advocate General believes that a centralized patent is "incompatible with the treaties" that created the EU.

For Google, this is a bonanza that will provide them with a vast database of quality translations of approximately 1.5 million documents, a number that grows by more than 50,000 new patent grants every year. This means that the quality of Google Translate should improve in several scientific knowledge domains. By definition, patents facilitate and encourage disclosure of innovations into the public domain for the common good. Protection of inventions is achieved by making the information public and not secret. To me, this is a perfect match with Google's stated mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Is this the end of patent translations for LSPs? I don't think so.

Patents are serious business and are worth a lot of money for their holders. Pharmaceutical patents are easily worth billions of dollars over their terms of protection and many lawsuits have been filed because of the interpretation of specific terms. Large organization that file hundreds or thousands of patents every year will not be penny pinching on translations and will still prefer to use the services of specialty LSPs like RWS for filing purposes.

Add to this, the fact that there are other language pairs that are not covered by the EPO/Google deal, and that patents still need to be filed in Japan, China, Brazil, and other countries. Deals like the one announced earlier this year between Asia Online and Lexis-Nexis Univentio can still proliferate, since their goal is to achieve publication quality.

From my point of view, this is a good announcement that proves the growing maturity of Google Translate, which will become a better tool for all its users due to the addition of good content to its database. But Google Translate will continue to be generic tool with good enough results.


  1. Great post, apposite focus, excellent concluding observation. Moving past visceral and reflexive misgivings that one may have toward massive corporations pushing into an area that has been - and for a long time continues to be - the realm of craftsmanship it is merely common sense to acknowledge that automated translation already pushed its output expectation levels past gisting, and moved into the good enough category in many language pairs. At some point it will inevitably break through that next threshold level too, all handwringing notwithstanding. Moreover, the point you make about the usefulness of accessing a high-quality and rich corpus is one to ponder very carefully, especially given the leverage it indubitably will provide for the TM-dependent industry sector as a whole. Also: comparatively speaking, Google is not a bad launching platform at all for such advances, if only given its proven propensity to sharing the fruits of their investments with the public at large at a fairly marginal cost to the end user. Put differently, I believe their business model is a whole lot more compatible with the small scale businesses that we language professionals run than some possible alternatives. Just ask yourself what difference it would have made, had this agreement been reached between the EPO and a certain multinational software corporation headquartered in Redmond, WA.

    Skepticism can be and often is quite healthy, but when Google speaks up and delves into an area still woefully in need of major development, we'd better all sit up and pay close attention, lest we want to be broadsided by the next evolutionary leap. Something about leading, following or getting out of the way comes to mind.

  2. Good post, Renato! We linked to it from our blog today.

    I agree that in and off itself, this deal does not represent the end of patent translations for LSPs. But I think this could well be the tipping point for Google Translate. If they can deliver for the EPO, other big organizations and companies will take them much more seriously.

    The loser would be many: other MT sellers (if I can select between Google and language company X, why wouldn't I select Google?), legacy LSPs, and freelance translators.

    At the same time, this will open up huge new opportunities in the areas of process development, management of linguistic assets, and coordination amongst different systems/suppliers.

    Like it or not, we live in interesting times...

  3. Comment from Chris Durban:

    From contacts at the French patent office here in Paris, my understanding is that this project is designed to allow research teams & patent filers to identify, via key-word searches, applications already filed in Estonia, Greece, Portugal, etc. in record time -- and thus be able to adjust the thrust of their own research early on.

    Concretely, patent applications (published 18 months after filing) will be run through the system as soon as they are available, with human translations likely to be commissioned if something interesting turns up (perceived conflict with prior claims, etc.). Human translators can and should be positioning themselves right now for this segment of the market. (Some are.)

    As you note, what Google is proposing is not a souped-up Google Translate as used by the non-linguist (wo)man in the street. It’s a dedicated system built on vetted documents and translations provided by EPO and EPO member institutions. But here's a thought: in some countries, word has it that prior to the London Agreement many patent attorneys had a very lucrative business churning out gazillions of translated words (through cascades of subcontractors), some of them on the iffy side. Here’s hoping they don’t get into the corpora.

    The official figure I’ve seen is that historically only about 2% of patent translations were ever even consulted at all, primarily because they were published so long after filing (useless for technology watch).  Of course, the human translations required for, e.g., patent litigation, are a different kettle of fish.

    Just musing now: since patents by definition introduce new technology, will automation have any impact on terminology/neologisms? How machines deal with human error is another issue -- I see that one of the press reports on the Google/EPO notes “Under the collaboration the EPO will use Google's translation technology to translate patents into the languages of the 38 countries that it severs.” Sounds painful.

    Chris Durban

  4. In my very humble opinion, Chris Durban's conclusions are not up to her initial analysis. The main point is the decision of having English, French, and German as EPO's official working languages. The choice of single working language would have favored a reduction in patent application costs and in political frictions between EU member countries. Spain and Italy reasonably maintain that the preferential treatment given to French and German will turn into a preferential treatment given to French and German companies damaging Spanish and Italian companies, since at present 48% of patents are field in French or German, with the remainder presented in English.
    The agreement between EPO and Google is supposed to give real-time access to existing patent information free-of-charge. However, translations made with the dedicated engine will have no legal value and should be used for information purposes only. A "traditional" translation would still be required in the case of a legal dispute, and the patent owner would have to pay for it into the language of the relevant court. It is estimated that approximately only 1% of all patents are disputed.
    The question translators should ask (mainly to themselves) is: is a strong intellectual property system vital to Europe's priorities? Once they have answered, the next question could be: will translators benefit from a knowledge economy, innovation promotion, and from equal-terms competition with other advanced countries, especially the U.S., and with the emerging countries who, conversely, often play without following the rules to take advantage of the weaknesses of competitors?