Europe Inches Closer to a Unified Patent System

Patent ready research. Europe's new Unified Patent Court could make it easier for scientists, such as those working at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (above), to commercialize their inventions.

Mark Mniszko/Cambridge Enterprise

After more than 30 years of negotiations, the European Union has finally settled on a site for its first pan-European patent court. Tussles over whether the Unified Patent Court should be seated in London, Paris, or Munich, Germany, ended on Friday when leaders agreed to divide the court between all three cities. The deal clears one of the final political hurdles on the way to a one-stop shop for patents to be granted in a single place and be valid across 25 countries.

At the moment, European patents are filed in one nation but then granted separately by others, with fees and translations costs associated with each approval. This disjointedness has sometimes been blamed for hampering the commercialization of research.

The three-city decision is a "historic" breakthrough, which "appealed to the sense of compromise of our colleagues," Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said at a press conference in Brussels on 29 June. Negotiators agreed that the office of the court's president—essentially, the headquarters—will be in Paris. The other two cities will get more specialized work, with Munich dealing with patents related to mechanical engineering, while London will handle patents related to the pharmaceutical industry and life sciences.

The new system promises to be both cheaper and simpler for patent applicants. In a press release, the European Council said its calculations showed that obtaining a patent that is valid across 13 European states "today can cost up to 20000 euro, and approximately 14000 euro of that sum would be spent on translations alone. In comparison, it costs approximately 1850 euro to obtain an American patent." Streamlining patenting may also limit multiple lawsuits related to the same patent in different countries, as well as litigation costs.

Rowan Freeland, an intellectual property partner at the law firm Simmons & Simmons, which mostly represents life science companies, says that the new court may also make European patents stronger by making them cheaper to enforce.

The new system may be more expensive, however, for small-scale inventors looking to patent in only a few E.U. nations, Freeland says. "If you are going for a patent in more than six member countries, then the new system is cheaper. So it will tend to benefit the inventor who is already trying to patent internationally," he says.

European leaders hope that the court will help increase global competitiveness. "Europe is falling behind the U.S. and China in number of patents granted," Michel Barnier, the European commissioner for Internal Market and Services, said in a statement. "The new rules, once in place, will increase the potential for inventions and innovation."

Choosing London to host the court specializing in life sciences patents plays to Britain's strength in pharmaceutical research, says Richard Jennings, deputy director of Cambridge Enterprise, a company that helps commercialize inventions at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (U.K.). Some negotiators had made a last-minute attempt to reduce the U.K.'s role in the Unified Patent Court, but the move was blunted by Prime Minister David Cameron after tense negotiations.

Despite European politicians' enthusiasm for the agreement, Morag Peberdy, a patent lawyer at the firm Covington & Burling LLP, believes that scientists should be cautious. Spain and Italy have not joined the regime at all. The remaining E.U. countries, meanwhile, will sign the agreement later this year, after which it may not be ratified until 2014.

"Even if the ratification process goes as smoothly as the E.U. Commission would want it to, the first Unified Patent is unlikely to be filed before 2014 at the earliest, and only time will tell if the new system for litigating these patents is cheaper and simpler for its users," says Peberdy.

"The principle of having a unified patent in Europe has always been a pipedream," adds Jennings. "The cost of filing patents in Europe has always been a disincentive for scientists. So if it achieves what it says, it would be a good thing."