Soon, a new unitary patent system will bring reduced cost and greater uniformity to European patents. The Unified Patent Court Agreement was signed Feb. 19, 2013 at the Council of the European Union meeting in Brussels, Belgium. At the meeting, ministers from 24 contracting EU member states signed on to the agreement establishing a Unified Patent Court (UPC). The Unified Patent Court Agreement represents one of the final major steps in forming a unitary patent system for Europe. The development of a European unitary patent system has been under discussion and development since the 1970s. The signing of the UPC agreement follows the adoption in December 2012 and entry into force of two regulations related to the unitary patent system. These two regulations pertain to unitary patent protection and the translation arrangements associated with the unitary patent, and came about through use of the enhanced cooperation procedure.

The European patent with unitary effect ("unitary patent") will be a European patent granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) under the provisions of the European Patent Convention. The unitary patent will not replace national patents and classical European patents, but will instead offer another option for parties seeking patent protection. The EPO will continue with its existing search, examination and granting procedures. Following patent grant the patentee may request unitary effect for the member states participating in the unitary patent, and will be able to maintain a classical European patent for the European patent convention contracting states that are not participants in the unitary patent.

The UPC will be a specialized patent court having exclusive jurisdiction in infringement and revocation proceedings concerning European patents and unitary patents. The UPC will comprise a Court of First Instance, a Court of Appeal and a Registry. The Court of First Instance will be composed of a central division (with a seat in Paris and sections in London and Munich) and by several local and regional divisions in the contracting member states to the agreement. The Court of Appeal will be located in Luxembourg. The UPC will be a common court for the contracting member states and avoid the occurrence of multiple litigation actions with regard to the same patent in different member states. This will prevent contradictory court rulings on the same issues and reduce the cost of patent litigation.

The initial signatory states for the UPC agreement are:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Cyprus
  • Germany
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • Finland
  • France
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • The Netherlands
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

Though not an initial signatory state, Bulgaria did accede to the agreement on March 5, 2013.

With the signing by 25 member states completed, the agreement must next be ratified by at least 13 participant member states. The agreement will enter into force Jan. 1, 2014, or following the ratification by 13 participant member — provided France, Germany and the UK are among them — whichever is later.

The unitary patent and the UPC will require a technical preparation phase, addressing matters such as the budget, IT provisions and procedural arrangements. The EPO, which is to take charge of administering the unitary patent, has already begun its preparations and is ready to take various initiatives to speed up the implementation of the system. The goals of a unitary patent system include simplifying and reducing the cost of patent registration, facilitating innovation and improving competitiveness for small- and medium-size enterprises. The unitary patent scheme will reduce the complexity and expense of obtaining patent protection in the European Union, while ensuring legal certainty throughout the member states.