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The UK Patent Office has called for worldwide consultation on the fundamental principles of patenting to tackle growing doubt in the efficacy of the IP approval system.

The British patent system is thought to work rather well in comparison to the US system, which has a reputation for awarding trivial or ridiculous patents, and the European system, which is trying to rebuild its reputation after an exhausting three-year squabble over software patents.

The UK office has been under pressure to either give in to the lobbies behind these trends or to protect its system from being diluted by strengthening its principles.

It appears that the latter is the motivation both for this consultation and the wider Gowers review of Intellectual Property that was launched in December.

At least in official circles, there is no lack of pride in the purity of the British system. Both reviews were tempered at their launch by official claims that there is nothing wrong, but that is no reason to neglect checking the knots and greasing the wheels, even if British patent law is set for the most part at the EC.

Reviews of the British system now will not only protect it against powerful lobbies that would have it operate differently, but would strengthen its reputation, and therefore encourage innovators at a time when patent is a dirty word. It would also strengthen the British position in any move toward a worldwide system or in negotiations in Europe.

Patents Directorate deputy director Hugh Edwardes, who launched the review, says the reputation of the US system and the controversy over software patents prompted this "fundamental" review.

"People say they're not worth the paper they're written on, like the famous Amazon one-click buy. People think it brings the patent system into disrepute if you grant patents like that," he says.

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