By Roger Harrabin
BBC Environment Analyst
Without a patent system, the electric light bulb may have been held back
The world patent system is under severe stress.
Delays in Europe of up to 10 years have left somewhere between five and ten million inventions globally queuing for approval, according to the head of European Patent Office, Alison Brimelow.
She said the delays were bad for business and created uncertainty for innovators.
There was immense pressure for the reform, she added, with increasing calls for a single European patent - and even a unified global system where a patent granted in one part of the world would be valid everywhere.
Currently, inventors have to file for patents in different countries.
This can be costly, time-consuming and risky.
In Europe there is another layer of complication because innovators can either apply through the European Patent Office or through national patent offices.
A previous attempt to create a unified EU patent stalled, although attempts are being made to revive it.
"For many users of the patent system it works along predictable lines, and does what it should," Ms Brimelow says.
Backlogs are, however, a real problem around the world and need to be addressed.
"I am worried," she admits.
"We are going to have to work at some more imaginative solutions than we have in the past. You cannot pretend the patent system is maintaining its integrity if you are looking at global backlogs.
"The Americans say 10 million pending - I say nearer five (million) - but too many. We have to find more effective ways of taking duplication out of the patents system."
She said patents in Europe were supposed to be granted in 36 months but often took four to five years. Some were dragged out for a decade.
Patent experts say sometimes applications are deliberately spun out by firms with a weak invention and a vested interest in keeping the protection of a patent pending without having to put the product fully to the test.
Some developing countries are complaining that the patent system is preventing them obtaining clean technology for the battle against climate change, and are demanding changes to the patent system to fast-track energy-saving inventions.
But Ms Brimelow says the patent system has not been able to respond to such a challenge.
"I note that people I talk to in the business of seeking patents are increasingly happy to speculate on whether the time has come for mutual recognition, a patent examined in one major institution should be recognised by another."
"Simply being able to talk about it changes the shape of dialogue.
"But it is nonetheless very difficult, very sensitive and - because patent offices are good at finding reasons for saying "no" - what is difficult about it is more readily seen than what might be workable.
"For the first time in my involvement in intellectual property since the beginning of the 90s I hear people prepared to talk about this and I think this is a new development and one we have to think about. It needs courageous decision-making."
But there are profound disagreements over what should be deemed patentable between Europe and America on issues like business methods, software and bio-technology.
Language is also a major barrier, with national offices within Europe insisting on businesspeople being able to read patents in their own language.
"In the end political disagreement are real disagreements and in the end you may have to live with the consequences of not agreeing."