25 EU countries agree on new European patent

Four decades after the plan was first made, 25 of the EU‘s 27 industry ministers have this week signed an agreement to allow inventors to register their idea with just one EU agency, with the introduction of a new “unitary” patent. The unified patent will allow European inventors to obtain exclusive legal rights to develop and exploit an idea (for a limited period of time) in a one-size-fits-all pan-European process.

Until now, those seeking to protect their innovations across Europe had to apply and validate 27 separate national patents for each member country, in what was a very bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly process. In the past, patent registration in Europe has been up to 18 times more expensive than in America, and up to 60 times more expensive than in China. The cost and difficulties involved in obtaining patents in the EU have meant that over the last decade, business Research and Development spending has been low; in 2011 Americans obtained four times more patents than Europeans. But, now that the cost of an EU patent is expected to fall from €35,000 to just €5,000 there are hopes that innovators will be encouraged in their inventions and that the single market will be strengthened, contributing to the restarting of the economy. Neoklis Sylikiotis, the Cypriot industry minister who chaired the patent meeting between the EU countries said, “discussions have been under way for more than 30 years and this decision will help to revive the European economy.”

A new patent system was first considered back in 1973 but was delayed following disagreement between Germany, France and Britain over who should host the court that will adjudicate in patent disputes.

This time round the countries have agreed to split the court between three centres – Munich, Paris and London, depending on the type of patent. Anyone seeking to challenge an infringement of their patent in life sciences, for example, will do so in London. Cases concerning engineering and physics will be dealt with in Munich.

Two countries who will not be involved in the system (at least for now) are Spain and Italy, who have refused to take part in a reform in which their languages – unlike French, German and English into which all EU patent applications must now be translated – were not recognised. On the grounds of this objection, they are also challenging the right of the other countries to proceed in the EU Court of Justice (ECJ).

Though it is not generally thought that Rome and Madrid will be successful in this challenge (the EU’s advocate-general has said the union’s Court of Justice should dismiss their claim) their objection does somewhat diminish the concept of a wholly “unitary” EU patent. There are also other concerns about the reform, including worries that it may lead to excessive litigation. Furthermore, it will probably take some time until it is fully functional, and even then an EU patent will be double the price of an American patent, which costs a mere €1,850. But despite these concerns, many in Europe are confident that the new patent system can only be an improvement on the old system, and can only mean good news for the European econonmy.

If the ECJ allows the 25 EU countries to proceed, the system is expected to take effect in early 2014, though it may take longer before it becomes fully functional.

Sources include: Inttranews,The Financial Times, Euractiv, The Economist

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