Happy Ending in Sight? New Impulses for the European Unitary Patent

By Martin Miernicki

On 10 February 2017, Italy ratified the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court. Already, the UK had announced their commitment to continuing the ratification process of the agreement, despite the ongoing “Brexit”-discussion.

The unitary patent – an overview

The legal basis for the unitary patent is the so-called “patent package” adopted between 2012 and 2013. It consists of three main instruments:

The patent package is the result of an enhanced cooperation (art. 326 et seq. TFEU) between, originally, 25 EU member states. Italy joined in 2015, leaving Spain and Croatia as the only member states not participating in the enhanced cooperation.[1] The adoption of the patent package was accompanied by several disputes,[2] especially regarding translation arrangements.

The unitary patent (European patent with unitary effect) supplements the options for the international protection of patents like the protection systems under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) or the European Patent Convention (EPC). The unitary patent is designed as a European patent issued by the European Patent Office (EPO) under the EPC. A European patent granted with the same set of claims in respect of all the participating member states can, upon request of the patent owner, benefit from the unitary effect under the Unitary Patent Regulation. In this case, the patent provides uniform protection and has equal effect in the participating member states (art. 3 of the Unitary Patent Regulation). Translations – in addition to those required under the EPC procedure – may be necessary if a dispute arises relating to the infringement of a unitary patent and during a transitional period (article 4, 6 of the Unitary Patent Translation Regulation). The Unified Patent Court (UPC) has jurisdiction for the unitary patents according to the UPC Agreement.

Entry into force

The Unitary Patent Regulation’s entry into force is linked to the UPC Agreement (art. 18). The same applies to the Unitary Patent Translation Regulation (art. 7). The UPC Agreement will enter into force upon the ratification of thirteen member states, including France, Germany, and the UK (as the countries with the highest number of European patents). As of March 2017, 12 signatory states, including France, have ratified the agreement.

What can be expected?

The British announcement to continue preparing for ratification was somewhat surprising given the current circumstances involving Brexit. It remains to be seen how the UK government will proceed, especially in light of the upcoming negotiations between the EU and the UK on their future relationship. The announcement alludes to this point, saying, “[t]he decision to proceed with ratification should not be seen as pre-empting the UK’s objectives or position in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU.” Furthermore, British minister Jo Johnson presented a favorable explanatory memorandum on the UPC to the British Parliament earlier this year. In turn, Italy’s ratification highlights that the preparation for the unitary patent is ongoing, and shows that the patent package could indeed enter into force sooner than later. Meanwhile, the UPC Preparatory Committee is working towards the phase of provisional application, which it expects to start in spring 2017.

[1] For the time being, Poland has not signed the UPC Agreement.

[2] Spain unsuccessfully asked the ECJ to annul the Unitary Patent Regulation, see Spain v. European Parliament, C‑146/13 (2015).

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