European Patent Office Adopts Study on Patents and Publishes First Edition of the Unitary Patent Guide

By Kletia Noti

On November 14, 2017, the European Patent Office (“EPO”) published a study titled “Patents, trade and foreign direct investment in the European Union” (hereinafter, “Study”). Inter alia, the Study assesses “the impact of the European patent system on the circulation of technologies through trade and foreign direct investment in the EU single market. The Study opines that the current patent system in Europe could bring increased benefits if further harmonization were accomplished. Under the current patent system, fragmentation post-grant gives rise to limitations which may hinder cross-border trade and investment in IP- and technology-intensive industries. According to the Study, the Unitary Patent will remove many of these limitations.

The Study follows the EPO publication, on 18 August 2017, of the first edition of the Unitary Patent Guide (hereinafter, “Guide”)[1]. The Guide aims to provide companies, inventors and their representatives with an outline of the procedure involved in obtaining a Unitary Patent from the EPO, once the EPO has granted a European patent on the basis of the provisions laid down in the European Patent Convention (“EPC”)[2]. In particular, the Guide addresses the mechanisms to obtain and renew a Unitary Patent, the information which will be rendered available about the already granted Unitary Patents, who can act before the EPO with regard to a Unitary Patent and how to record changes of ownership and licenses.

In addition to the classic routes to obtain a patent in the EU (i.e. the national route; the European patent), a Unitary Patent can be sought as a result of the Unitary Patent reform[3]. The Unitary Patent will make it possible to get patent protection in up to 26 EU Member States by submitting a single request to the EPO, making the procedure simpler and more cost effective for applicants. More specifically, the Unitary Patent is a “European patent with unitary effect”, which means a European patent granted by the European Patent Office under the rules and procedures of the European Patent Convention (EPC).

At the pre-grant phase, the procedure will follow the same steps as those for European patents granted by the EPO under the rules of the EPC.  If the criteria set out under the EPC are met, the EPO grants a European patent. Once the European patent is granted, the patent proprietor will be able to request unitary effect, thereby obtaining a Unitary Patent which provides uniform patent protection in up to 26 EU Member States[4].  Namely, what distinguishes the European patent from the Unitary Patent is that, after the grant, the proprietor may ask the EPO for unitary effect to be attributed for the territory of the participating EU Member States in which the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court (hereinafter, “UPCA”) [5], an international treaty, has taken effect at the date of registration[6].

Against the above background, the Unitary Patent will thus cover the territories of those participating EU Member States in which the UPCA has taken effect at the date of registration of unitary effect by the EPO. The EPO clarifies that, as it is likely that the ratification will occur successively, there will be different generations of Unitary Patents with different territorial coverage. This means that, although 26 EU Member States are currently participating in the Unitary Patent scheme, Unitary Patents registered at the outset will not cover all 26 of their territories, because some of them have not yet ratified the UPCA[7].

On November 20, 2017, the President of the Council of the EU published a summary of the situation in the 25 Member States which have signed the Unified Patent Court Agreement (UPCA) concerning both their ratification of the UPCA and their consent to be bound by its Protocol on Provisional Application (PPA)[8].

While France has already ratified the UPCA and has expressed consent to be bound by the PPA, the UK and Germany have not done so yet.

In particular, what the impact of Brexit on the Unitary Patent project would be is still unclear[9]. On December 4, 2017, the UK House of Commons formally approved the draft Unified Patent Court (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2017[10]. The House of Lords Grand Committee also met on December 6, 2017 to consider this draft Order. The approval of such an Order by the House of Lords and its subsequent approval (along with the corresponding Scottish Order) by the Privy Council are the final steps in the UK’s ratification process that need to be completed before the UK can formally ratify the UPC Agreement[11].

Earlier in 2017, a constitutional complaint[12] was lodged with the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany. The complaint is currently pending and, if upheld, is expected to likely cause delay to the German ratification of the UPCA and Germany consenting to be bound by the PPA[13].

[1] Available at: https://www.epo.org/law-practice/unitary/unitary-patent/unitary-patent-guide.html

[2] https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/epc.html

[3] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-12-970_en.htm?locale=en

[4] Whether the United Kingdom continues to participate in the Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court after its withdrawal from the EU will be a political decision for the EU, its remaining Member States and the United Kingdom and may be addressed as part of the exit negotiations. See Guide, Section 15.

[5] In February 2013, 25 EU Member States, i.e. all EU Member States except Spain, Poland and Croatia, signed the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court (UPCA), Date of entry into force unknown (pending notification) or not yet in force, OJ C 175, 20.6.2013, p. 1–40. The UPCA is the third component of the Unitary Patent package. The Unified Patent Court (UPC) is a common court for all the Member States party to the UPCA and therefore, it is part of their judicial system. It has exclusive competence in respect of Unitary Patents as well as in respect of classic European patents validated in one or several of those states. See: https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/html/upg/e/uppg_a_v_3.html. In September 2015, Italy joined the Unitary Patent and became the 26th member of the enhanced cooperation on Unitary Patent protection.

[6] The EU regulations establishing the Unitary Patent system (No 1257/2012 and No 1260/2012) entered into force on 20 January 2013, but they will only apply as from the date of entry into force of the UPCA, namely on the first day of the fourth month following the deposit of the 13th instrument of ratification or accession (provided those of the three Member States in which the highest number of European patents had effect in the year preceding the signature of the Agreement, i.e. France, Germany and the United Kingdom, are included). See EPO, When will the Unitary Patent start:  https://www.epo.org/law-practice/unitary/unitary-patent/start.html

[7]See, for a list of the (so far) 14 Member States which have already ratified the UPCA: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/documents-publications/treaties-agreements/agreement/?id=2013001# (last accessed 17 December 2017)

[8] Note from Presidency to the Council, Unitary Patent and Unified Patent Court – Information on the State of Play, 20 November 2017.

[9] On December 22, 2017, a note was sent to the UK Government by the UK Law Society which had been contributed to and signed by other IP stakeholder organisations, asking the Government to provide legal certainty regarding the UPC post-Brexit.

[10]See, for an overview: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmvote/171204v01.html

[11] M.Richardson, The Lords Consider the UPC: Where is it?, 12 December 2017, available at:  https://ipcopy.wordpress.com/2017/12/12/the-lords-consider-the-upc-where-is-it/

[12]Juve, UPC: Düsseldorfer Rechtsanwalt Stjerna legte Verfassungsbeschwerde ein, September 6, 2009: https://www.juve.de/nachrichten/verfahren/2017/09/upc-duesseldorfer-rechtsanwalt-stjerna-legte-verfassungsbeschwerde-ein

[13] For the PPA to come into effect, 13 signatory states – which have signed the UPCA (and which must include France, UK and Germany) and have ratified the UPCA or informed the depositary that they have received parliamentary approval to ratify the UPCA – must have signed and ratified, accepted or approved the Protocol or declared themselves bound by Article 1 of the Protocol. Therefore, Germany’s consent to the PPA is needed before the provisional application phase can start.

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