The European Unitary Patent and The Unified Patent Court - The Basics
In December 2012, the EU Council and European Parliament approved the so-called ‘Unitary Patent Package’ consisting of:
The European Unitary Patent (EUP) will be a European patent, granted by the EPO, having ‘unitary effect’ across all of the participating countries. It will be a single, indivisible, right – like a EUTM or RCD. The Unified Patent Court (UPC) will provide, for the participating countries, a centralised forum for the litigation of European patents, including the new Unitary Patents.
In principle, the UPC will open its doors and the EUP will become available to European patent applicants three months after the UPC Agreement comes into force. However, at present it is not clear when this will happen.
The UK ratified the UPC Agreement in April 2018 and has consistently indicated that it intends to participate in the UPC and EUP. However, there are differing views as to whether it will actually be possible for the UK to remain part of the UPC system after it leaves the European Union (‘Brexit’).
In addition to the Brexit uncertainty there is also an outstanding legal challenge to the UPC legislation in the German Federal Constitutional Court. These factors have delayed ratification of the UPC agreement by Germany, which is a prerequisite for it to come into force.
This page sets out briefly how the European Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court are expected to operate, when and if they eventually become a reality. For more information, please contact us.
Out of the 28 current EU countries, 25 have signed the agreement confirming their participation in the Unified Patent Court. The same countries are participating in the European unitary patent scheme. They are listed below:
Spain has not signed up to the unitary patent package: in principle, they could join at any time, but this is not currently considered likely. Poland subscribed to the original EU decision approving the unitary patent package, but did not actually sign the UPC agreement; they could in principle join at any time but have indicated that they will not do so until after the system is up and running. Croatia acceded to the EU on 1 July 2013 (after the agreement was signed) and has not yet signed up, but is expected to do so eventually.
The unitary patent will cover all of the participating countries above that have also ratified the UPC Agreement at the time of requesting the unitary patent. These are known as the Contracting Member States. Decisions of the Unified Patent Court will affect unitary patents and also traditional European patents in the Contracting Member States (unless opted out – see below).
As at the start of 2019, the countries that have ratified the UPC Agreement are given below. In addition, Germany must ratify the UPC Agreement in order for it to come into force and so will be covered by the unitary patent when it becomes available.
Countries who are Member States of the EPC, but who are not in the EU (for example, Switzerland and Norway) are not eligible to join the Unitary Patent or Unified Patent Court. European patents granted by the EPO will still cover these countries, but they will need to be validated, maintained, and enforced separately in each of them, as now.
A European patent application will be filed at the EPO in the usual way.
When the application is granted, the applicant will then be able to choose whether or not the resulting European patent should have ‘unitary effect’ for the Contracting Member States. A request for a UP must be filed at least 1 month before publication of grant. There will be no official fee for the request.
There is no way to convert currently granted European patents into UPs.
It will still be possible, as an alternative to unitary protection, to validate separately in any or all of the Contracting Member States, as now. If a EUP is requested, separate validation will in any case still be necessary for countries that have not (at that time) ratified the UPC agreement.
The cost of filing and prosecuting the European patent application at the EPO should be the same as at present.
The renewal fees for the unitary patent have been set by the EPO (see here for details). The level of the renewal fees is intended to represent roughly four times the average renewal fee for a single country. Therefore, for applicants who usually validate their European patents in only a few countries (e.g. only in the UK, France and Germany), the unitary patent may not represent good value.
During a transitional period, there will be a requirement to translate the whole text of the unitary European patent into at least one other language, which will add to the cost. However, in the long run it is intended that machine translations will make the patent automatically available in all EU languages, so there will be no need for the patentee to provide any translations in order to obtain a EUP. The transitional period will last until the quality of machine translations is deemed to be good enough for this purpose, up to a maximum of 12 years.
A comparison of some of the pros and cons of the UP is provided below.
|Potentially reduced translation requirement
and cost in the transitional period (of up to 12 years) if normally validate in at least one contracting member states which is outside of
the London Agreement.
|Potentially more translation requirements and costs during transitional period if normally only validate in London Agreement countries.|
|Reduced translation requirement and costs
after transitional period when Google translate
is deemed sufficiently accurate.
|Potentially higher renewal fees if normally only validate in 3 countries (e.g. UK, France and Germany).|
|Potentially reduced renewal fee if normally
validate in 4+ of the contracting member states.
|Will not include any EU country that has not ratified at the time of request for the UP (such as Spain).|
|Will cover at least 17 countries, including the
UK, Germany and France.
|Does not cover any EPC country that is not a member of the EU (except possibly the UK after Brexit) – therefore still need to validate as before in these countries if desired.|
|The UP will always fall under the jurisdiction
of the UPC.
|Not possible to opt-out of UPC.|
|Compensation scheme will be available to
reduce the costs of translation for SMEs,
natural persons, non-profit organisations, universities and public research organisations
that are resident in a contracting member state.
|Cannot selectively let states lapse during lifetime of patent to reduce renewal costs.|
At present, European patents must in principle be litigated separately in each country where they have effect. For example, a decision by a UK court on the validity or infringement of a particular European patent currently has no effect in Germany. Such ‘parallel’ litigation increases costs for the parties and occasionally results in inconsistent decisions from the different national courts, which is undesirable.
The countries signed up to the Unified Patent Court have all agreed to transfer jurisdiction over European patents and SPCs from their national courts to a single, centralised court.
This should reduce the amount of parallel litigation and increase legal certainty, since decisions on infringement or validity of European patents will be made by a single court and will then have effect in all participating countries.
All litigation involving the new European Unitary Patent will be conducted in the new Unified Patent Court.
Within the Contracting Member States, the Court will also have exclusive competence to decide on matters of infringement and validity relating to ‘traditional’ European patents (i.e. not having unitary effect) and also on matters relating to Supplementary Protection Certificates (SPCs) granted on these patents.
So, once the Agreement is fully in force, an action for revocation of an EP(UK) patent, for example, will be brought before the Unified Patent Court, not before a UK court. Similarly, an action for infringement of a European patent in Germany will also be brought before the Unified Patent Court. Decisions of the Unified Patent Court will then have effect across all Contracting Member States.
For a transitional period however, (initially 7 years, extendable on review) it will still be possible to start litigation concerning a ‘traditional’ European patent in a national court instead of in the UPC. Furthermore, during the transitional period, owners of European patents will be able to ‘opt-out’ of the unified system to ensure that proceedings concerning their European patents can only be brought in the national courts. Patents which have been “opted out” will stay opted out for their whole term, unless the patentee withdraws the opt-out (which they can do at any time).
The opt-out procedure (see below) will therefore be very important for anyone wishing to avoid the UPC in the early stages.
The national courts in the individual countries will continue to have jurisdiction over national patents, (i.e. granted by the national patent offices, not the EPO).
The first instance Court will be split into local and regional ‘divisions’ (to be set up by the Contracting Member States) as well as a Central Division. In general, the Central Division will be responsible for most cases relating to validity, whereas infringement actions will generally occur in the local divisions.
The Central Division will be based in London (for Life Sciences and Chemistry subject matter), Paris (for Physics and Materials subject matter) and Munich (for Mechanical and Engineering subject matter). These locations are set out in the UPC Agreement.
The Court of Appeal for the Unified Patent Court will be situated in Luxembourg.
All European patents will automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the UPC when it comes into force, unless the patent proprietor “opts out”.
Therefore, all proprietors have a choice of two options for each European patent:
The opt-out procedure has the following features:
It is worth noting that, eventually, the UPC will have jurisdiction over all patents granted by the EPO (both UPs and conventional European patents) in the Contracting Member States. The earliest possible date for this will be seven years after the UPC comes into force. After this time, the only way to avoid the UPC will be to file national (e.g. GB, DE) applications.
A comparison of some of the pros and cons of the UPC is provided below.
|Single litigation action for “European”
infringement (including the issuance of “pan-European” injunctions).
New and untested system – it may take a few cases before procedure is optimised and several years before there is an established body of case law. As such, it will be difficult to predict chances of success/likely outcome of proceedings in the early years.
|Court will have pool of experienced IP judges
from around Europe – the judges will initially be appointed on a part time basis so that the best national judges are able to serve both the UPC
and the national courts.
|Central revocation action possible even after EPO opposition period has expired.|
|Proprietors may gain early experience of the
Bifurcation of proceedings (i.e. infringement and validity decided separately) is possible, thus potentially leading to higher costs and differing claim interpretation for validity and infringement. To minimise the risk of divergent claim interpretation, bifurcation will only occur after the written proceedings have been concluded.
Proprietors can potentially shape early case law, and in particular may have an influence on a point of law that is currently unfavourable in national courts around Europe.
Risk of forum shopping – there is a risk that the different local/regional divisions will take different approaches with respect to claim interpretation and substantive law. Thus some local/regional divisions may appear to be more, for example, patentee-friendly than others and result in forum shopping. The Court of Appeal will need to function well to minimise any variations between different Divisions of the Court.
Existing EPs do not become “EUPs” by opting in to the UPC.
This information is simplified and must not be taken as a definitive statement of the law or practice.