The establishment of an EU-wide patent system is now one step closer following approval by the European Parliament and Council of new EU-wide patent regulations.

The new system, which is intended to take effect from 1 January 2014, will allow for the registration of a unitary patent across 25 of the 27 EU member states. Spain and Italy have refused to take part as the official languages of the regime will be English, French and German and will not include Spanish or Italian.

The introduction of a Community patent has been the focus of debate for almost 40 years. While a European Patent Office was established in 1977, a separate application for patent protection must still be made in each member state in which protection is sought. The existing European Patent is in fact a bundle of individual national patents, rather than an EU-wide patent. The costs associated with such an application and with defending a patent in each of the relevant member states can be very high. It is intended that the new system will lead to cost efficiencies.

Despite the progress of the unitary patent scheme, commentators remain sceptical as to its likelihood of success. The much touted decrease in patent costs may not benefit an SME which requires protection in only a few member states. It is also unclear how the regime will be of benefit to large entities. Organisations with high value patents, particularly pharmaceutical companies, are likely to shy away from the system, at least while it is in its infancy, as centralised validity challenges present a significant risk.

The next steps in the process are the signing of the treaty establishing the Unified Patent Court and its ratification. The UK, France, Germany and 10 other member states are required to ratify the treaty in order to bring the new system into force.