Why European banks are lagging behind in the patent race

Posted on Sep 5, 2021, 10:31 AM

Blockchain, artificial intelligence, contactless payments… New technologies are irrigating the world of finance more than ever. There is no question of being overtaken by the phenomenon: the big banks, all over the world, have embarked on a race for innovation which is illustrated in particular by a large number of patent filings. This is the case in the United States and China. On the other hand, this is less true in Europe, and in particular in France.

This is evidenced by the low number of patents filed by the French groups. At the European Patent Office (EPO), there are a total of around fifty in the name of BNP Paribas (divided into six families of inventions). When Bank of America, one of the most active in the field, files 227… in the first half of 2021 alone – its total patent portfolio is even approaching 5,000!

In France, no bank appears in the top 50 of the first depositors, established by the INPI (National Institute of Intellectual Property), and dominated by large industrial groups such as PSA, Safran and Valeo.

Different rules of application

This does not mean, however, that French establishments do not innovate. “Measuring innovation by the number of registered patents alone would not be fair”, considers Didier Patry, CEO of France Brevets, a company jointly owned by the State and Caisse des Dépôts, which supports companies in the valuation of their innovations.

In recent years, banks have multiplied in-house incubation programs for start-ups, but also investments in fintechs to seek out technologies that they do not have.

The rules on intellectual property are also not the same. We do not patent the same innovations when we are in the United States or in a country of the European Union.

The blockchain boom

“In the United States, new, non-obvious and useful inventions are patentable. Certain innovations related to software (Software related patent) or economic methods (Business method patent) can be considered as patentable subject matter in the United States, while the same innovations could not be in Europe ”, specifies the INPI.

To be validated there, a patent must indeed refer to a technical solution which makes it possible to resolve a technical problem. This is not necessarily the case across the Atlantic, where the definition is broader.

Blockchain innovations, more technical, better meet European criteria. The number of patents filed on the subject is also growing strongly in Europe, but also and especially in the United States and China, says Yann Ménière, economist at the European Patent Office (EPO). “Banks are not the most active in the field. Rather, they are fintech and payment specialists, ”he warns.

A defensive weapon

Patents do not only bear witness to the innovation strategy of large financial groups. “The patent becomes a defensive weapon for a bank in the face of the threat posed by an Amazon or an Apple,” explains Didier Patry. The tech giants themselves use this weapon intensively to defend their positions in their markets ”. According to the expert, American banks have integrated the concept well. And intellectual property is now one of their strategic areas of development.

In France, the subject hardly prints. France Brevets has offered to offer its services to various local banks, to help them build up a “defensive” patent portfolio. They have so far not followed up on it.

“The fact that European banks historically have few patents does not really worry me,” comments Yann Ménière, recalling the difference in rules on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, the risk is to watch the fintech train go by on technologies that are patentable, such as blockchain. We must not miss the wave ”.

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