The efforts to create a unitary EU patent and a pan-European patent court have experienced both setbacks and new impetus in the eventful past year. 2021 is likely to bring further important decisions.
In the B&B Bulletin, we have already repeatedly reported on the unitary patent project. While the European patent system has so far only provided for a centralized granting procedure that results in a bundle of national patents, in future the European Patent Office shall also grant a pan-European patent with unitary effect in all participating member states (currently all EU members with the exception of Spain and Croatia). In addition, these patents are to be enforceable in the future before a Unified Patent Court (UPC) against patent infringers with effect for all participating member states.
The ideas for such a unitary patent already existed when the European Patent Office was founded in the 1970s. Efforts have intensified over the past ten years, and since 2013 the relevant agreements to implement these ideas have been in place and have already been ratified by numerous EU member states. However, German ratification, which is essential for entry into force, was held up in 2017 by a constitutional complaint. In March 2020, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the German bill for implementing the ratification would have required a two-thirds majority in parliament. In fact, the approval in the parliament had been unanimous, but too few parliamentarians had been present for the vote.
Another setback in 2020 was related to Brexit: While the UK under Theresa May’s government had always announced that it would stick to the unitary patent and the Unified Patent Court, Boris Johnson’s successor government announced in February 2020 that the idea of a unitary European patent system was incompatible with Brexit, and in July 2020 it withdrew UK ratification. It was thus clear that the unitary patent would start without the UK, if at all.
The fact that one of the economically strongest European countries will not participate in the unitary patent system is a burden on the acceptance and significance of the unitary patent, especially since the UK was originally one of its most ardent advocates and also contributed greatly to the realization of the project before Brexit. In addition, the UK’s withdrawal creates significant organizational and legal challenges, not the least because London (along with Paris and Munich) is explicitly designated in the agreements as one of the three seats of the Unified Patent Court.
Despite the withdrawal of Great Britain, the remaining member states have declared their intention to move ahead with the project. Several countries have already signaled their interest in taking over the London seat. Italy, for example, has put Milan into play. France has stated that the tasks of the London branch could also be taken over by Paris, and Germany has proposed a split between Paris and Munich. It is to be expected that, despite the apparent continuing political will to proceed, we will see controversial discussions over the course of the year about how to move ahead. The agreements may also need to be amended to reflect the UK’s withdrawal.
In Germany, the legislative process restarted relatively quickly after the negative decision by the Federal Constitutional Court. In November 2020, the German parliament passed the bill again, this time with the necessary two-thirds majority, and the Bundesrat chamber followed unanimously in December 2020.
However, before the bill could enter into force, two new constitutional complaints were received by the Federal Constitutional Court on December 18, 2020. It is not yet publicly known who the plaintiffs are this time and on what arguments they rely. Depending on whether the Federal Constitutional Court accepts the constitutional complaints for decision, German ratification could be delayed once again. In this respect, 2021 will most likely be a year of important decisions that set the further course for the unitary patent project. We will keep you informed of all developments.