European Union Patent Scheme Gains As Member States Agree on New Court

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By Joe Kirwin

BRUSSELS--The European Union took another step Feb. 19 toward establishing an EU-wide patent scheme as a majority of member states signed an accord to create a new court.

The Unified Patent Court is designed to complement a recently passed EU law that gives applicants a “one-stop shop” option for protecting inventions and innovations, instead of making them go through all the states separately.

“The signing of the Unified Patent Court is a truly historic moment as it will give enterprises greater access to patent protection at the European level and make enforcement of patents affordable,” said Richard Bruton, Ireland's minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation.

“It is also an important milestone in the continued development of the EU single market,” added Bruton, who managed the signing ceremony because his country holds the rotating EU presidency.

Deal Needs Ratification
Creation of the new patent court still must be must be ratified by parliaments of the EU member states.

“The ratification requirement will involve explaining the new system to national parliaments,” Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier said. “It is important not to let the discussion be dominated by vested interests and the fear of things new.”

The European Commission estimates the new scheme will save companies as much as $300 million a year and put patent protection costs on par with the United States and Japan.

Language Disputes, 'Enhanced Cooperation'
The commission first proposed an EU-wide patent scheme more than 20 years ago, but disputes about languages have blocked the plan. Serious headway was made three years ago, when the EC proposed that the system employe three official languages--English, French and German.

Italy and Spain objected to the plan, fearing it would set a precedent for other EU institutions. In order to bypass those objections, the EC used a special legislative procedure known as “enhanced cooperation” that allows at least nine like-minded EU member states to move ahead on legislation that normally requires unanimous consent.

Later, the United Kingdom, Germany and France fought over where the new patent court would be based. That dispute was resolved with each country getting a piece of the new institution: the headquarters will be in Paris; cases involving chemistry and pharmaceuticals will be litigated in London; and cases involving mechanical engineering will be argued in Munich.

Challenges Ahead
Even if the national parliaments ratify the agreement, many challenges await, Barnier said. They include setting forth rules of procedure for the new court, financing it, and recruiting and training judges.

“We must face facts,” he said. “Making all this come true in a very short time frame will not be easy and will require a lot of work. We are close to achieving our goal but we are not there yet.”

By Joe Kirwin

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