On December 11, 2012, the European Parliament approved a legislative package that is aimed at establishing a single unified European patent system.
Under the current European system, an applicant files a single patent application at the European Patent Office. If the application is granted, the single application becomes a bundle of national patent rights in each of the European countries selected by the applicant. After grant, there are significant translation fees (to translate the single application into numerous languages) and each individual patent requires the payment of annual renewal fees to keep it in force. It has long been recognized that the current system is expensive and may create a hurdle to small and medium-sized enterprises. Also, under the current system, legal proceedings concerning the validity or infringement of any national patents are heard in the courts of that particular country. For example, an infringement action for a GB patent will occur in the Patents Court or Patents County Court of England and Wales.
Under the new system, an applicant can elect to receive a single unitary patent that covers all the contracting states, rather than a bundle of individual national patents. This will reduce the amount of renewal fees payable. Also, the rules will be changed to reduce the amount (and therefore cost) of translations required - machine translations will be permitted, in certain circumstances, rather than human translations. Also, a new court (the “Unified Patent Court”) will be set up with a first instance “Central Division” split between Paris, London and Munich. A single Court of Appeal will be based in Luxembourg and appeals from that Court will go to the Court of Justice of the European Union. There will also be rules in place to control where infringement proceedings can be commenced - generally speaking they will need to be brought where the defendant is domiciled or where the infringement is occurring. These changes will reduce the forum shopping that is available under the current system.
The new system will come into force either on January 1, 2014, or 4 months after thirteen states have ratified the agreement on the Unified Patent Court (provided that the UK, France and Germany are among them), whichever is the latest. On February 18, 2013, the agreement on the Unified Patent Court will be open for signature. There are a number of transitional provisions to ease applicants into the new system and to permit, for a period of time, applicants to continue with the current system rather than being forced to go with the new system.