In our Bulletin, we report regularly (most recently on the renewal fees in the December 2015 issue) on the route to a unitary European patent system. The recent progress comprises in particular the surprising decision of Italy to participate, the enactment of the procedural regulations for the Unitary Patent Court, and the abandonment of the opt-out fees.
The unitary European patent (sometimes also referred to as Community Patent) shall for the first time create a unitary patent protection for the European Union including a new judicial system which allows to enforce patents or declare them invalid on a pan-European basis.
For a long time, Italy was very critical of the plans for a unitary patent. The Italians were particularly bothered by the fact that Italian will not be an official language of the new patent system, and since 2011 had even been trying, together with Spain, to stop the unitary patent before the European Court of Justice. But Italy stayed absent from Spain’s second lawsuit, which failed in 2015. Now, Italy has finally completed the U-turn and joined the unitary patent system as the 26th member state on 30 September 2015. This is great progress for the unitary patent and its acceptance, as Italy represents an economic heavyweight which lies in fourth place in the list of patent validations Europe-wide (behind Germany, Great Britain and France). Spain and Croatia are now the only EU states which are still missing.
The establishment of the unitary patent system and new judicial system have also progressed considerably. The eighteenth draft of the code of procedure for the Unified Patent Court was accepted in October as the final draft. In December and February, a series of agreements relating to the court fees, the budgetary and financial rules and the distribution of the renewal fees between the EPO and the participating member states have been passed. As part of these agreements, it was decided to suppress the opt-out fee. This fee – formerly proposed at Eur. 80 per patent – would have become due during a transitory period for opting out of the new system in favour of the established national courts, or to opt-in again. The abolishment of these fees, which could have added up substantially for large patent portfolios, will allow patent holders a free and unrestricted choice between the established and the new system, and hence is a welcome development.
Some court buildings have already been designated across Europe. Work on the sophisticated IT infrastructure of the new court is progressing. The recruitment of the legally and technically qualified judges has meanwhile begun as well.
In order that the agreement on the Unitary Patent and the Unitary Patent Court can finally come into force, the ratification by 13 member states is required. Up to now, nine states have ratified, most recently Finland in January 2016. While the threat of a Brexit might conceivably result in further delays, currently we assume that the Unitary Patent will become reality in 2017 – almost fifty years after the first initiatives!