In March 2011 the EU Council, with the support of the European Parliament, took a landmark decision to allow 25 EU member states to establish a unitary patent system under the "enhanced co-operation" scheme. Unitary patents will be valid across the territory of the participating countries. This should pave the way for a true supranational patent system in Europe, something that has been discussed for decades and eagerly awaited by industry.
The unitary patent system - together with the proposed centralised European patent litigation system also currently under discussion - will simplify procedures and lower costs for applicants by
The European Patent Office has been asked by the EU member states to administer the unitary patent system.
Currently, once a European patent is granted by the EPO, it has to be validated in each EPO member state for which the patent proprietor seeks patent protection. For this purpose, the majority of states require a full translation of the patent in their official language(s). The future unitary patent will be automatically valid throughout the territory of the EU member states participating in the enhanced co-operation scheme in the EPO language in which it was granted.
Under the current proposals, the unitary patent will, after grant and at the patent proprietor's request, be a European patent having a unitary effect. Consequently, the application and examination procedure for unitary patents and European patents will be identical until after the patent has been granted. The procedure, the criteria and the rules for examining patentability, all of which are laid out in the European Patent Convention, will be the same for both types of patent.
The difference between the unitary patent and the existing European patent will be in the post-grant phase, when the patent proprietor decides on what geographical coverage is needed.
After the patent is granted, the patent proprietor can opt for
The patent proprietor can also combine both schemes and request a European patent in a selection of those EPO member states not belonging to the enhanced co-operation scheme and a unitary patent for those belonging to the scheme.
Any individual, company or organisation - whether European or non-European and whether from a state participating in the scheme or not - will be able to opt for a unitary patent. Inventors will benefit from the simplified validation procedure and fewer translation and renewal requirements.
In addition, the introduction of a central European patent court will benefit innovators by bringing down patent litigation costs and increasing legal certainty.
More information about the history of the unitary patent, the draft regulations and the role of the EPO is available under legislative initiatives.