Approval of legislation for such a patent came at the end of last year, followed in February by the signing of an international agreement establishing a unified patent court. Those developments were greeted with delight by campaigners for innovation. But they were not the end of the story.
First, the good news for Europe’s entrepreneurs, hungry for cheaper, joined-up EU-wide recognition: the European Court of Justice’s decision in April to reject Spain’s and Italy’s appeal against using the process of ‘enhanced co-operation’ to allow the system to go ahead with the other 25 EU member states overcame the patent’s most substantial hurdle.
However, other bureaucratic tasks remain and they are far from straightforward. The people given the task of sorting most of it out, representatives of the 25 countries participating in the unitary patent, came together as the select committee for the patent for the first time on 20 March in Munich. The committee will be chaired for three years by Jérôme Debrulle, of Belgium’s intellectual property office, assisted by L’uboš Knoth, of Slovakia’s industrial property office.
Money is the root of many of the points of contention. Some of the select committee’s most crucial decisions will be to determine the level of fees for the patent. The prices must be low enough to encourage applications – and certainly cheaper than the current cost of registering patents in 25 different countries. But, equally, they must be high enough to cover costs, since the European Patent Office (EPO) has 38 member states, many of whom are not participating in the new regime.
The fees for renewing patent protection are the most contentious point. At the moment national offices set their own prices and keep the money, but under the new system the EPO will administer the fees and distribute the income to member states.
Then there is the issue of the unified patent court, the body that will rule on disputes relating to the new unitary patents, as well as traditional European patents in participating countries.
The most urgent task for the court’s preparatory committee, which met for the first time on 26 March and is chaired by Paul van Beukering, the head of intellectual property at the Dutch ministry of economic affairs, is to arrange the training for the court’s judges.
Before the patent court can come into effect, 13 countries, including France, Germany and the UK, need to ratify it. None has yet done so and the process could last at least until the end of next year.
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The EU’s unitary patent has been a long time in the making. Indeed, it had been spoken about for four decades before last year’s deal. The European Commission hoped that the first patents would be issued from April 2014.
With so much still to do, 2015 now looks a more realistic start-date. Europe’s economy is hoping that the rewards – in terms of growth-inducing innovation – are worth the wait.