As previously reported, following ratification in Germany, the way is cleared for the European patent with unitary effect (EU unitary patent) and the Unified Patent Court (UPC). As a result of the deposit of the instrument of ratification by Austria on 18 January 2022, the “provisional application of the EPC/UPC” has now entered into force. Only the preparatory work for the establishment of the court system will have to be completed in the coming months. The Preparatory Committee estimates that it will take at least 8 months. Once the UPC has become effective, Germany will deposit its instrument of ratification as the last formal act, which will automatically trigger the starting point: at the beginning of the fourth following month, i.e. probably towards the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023, the unitary patent and the UPC will finally become reality, after a long waiting period.
What does this mean for patent applicants and patent proprietors of European patents?
The following are some points to consider now, i.e. even before entering into force:
(1) Choice between the new unitary patent and the classical EP patent
Even if the option can in principle only be exercised after entry into force: by means of suitable procedural measures, this freedom of choice could still be used for EP applications currently pending before the EPO, even if the grant phase is already relatively far advanced.
In a recent communication from the European Patent Office, official measures are announced – without giving details at the moment – to give patent applications that are about to be granted the chance to obtain a unitary patent. The communication on the version of the patent application intended for grant (the so-called “Rule 71(3) Communication”) is considered to be the caesura for the applicability of these announced measures.
If you wish to maintain the option for applications although a Rule 71(3) Communication has already been issued, you may have to take your own procedural steps. That is, in order to gain time in this situation, for instance minor formal amendments to the intended text could be requested at the end of the regular 4-month period, in order to trigger a second 71(3) Communication. Alternatively, or in addition, it is also possible to continue the application after the due date for completion of the (possibly second) Rule 71(3) Communication has deliberately expired: after being notified of a loss of rights, further processing (with an official fee of 265.00 EUR) would then have to be requested.
(2) Choice depending on the type and number of countries desired
After entry into force of the Unitary Patent Act, the applicant must decide, at the latest one month after receipt of the decision to grant by the EPO, whether to proceed with EP validations in individual countries as before or to seek the new EU unitary patent. The new EU unitary patent would allow patent protection over the entire territory of the participating EU countries at one stroke, which currently includes the following 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden. More will be added soon, as 8 countries only need to ratify (Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Cyprus). If protection is to be achieved for further, non-participating countries – including non-EU states of the EPC such as Great Britain or Switzerland – additional national validations would have to be carried out there in accordance with the “old” model.
(3) Choice of (non-)applicability of the UPC (opt-in/opt-out)
Three months before the unitary patent and the UPC enter into force, the so-called “sunrise period” begins. From this time onwards, the applicant/patent proprietor can request the non-applicability of the UPC system for one or more or even all of his existing and future classical EP patents by “opting out”. In the opt-out state, individual national courts will then – during a transitional period of 7 years – retain jurisdiction as before in actions on patent infringement and validity in the respective country. Reasons for choosing the opt-out are, for example, not to expose the patent to the risk of a central invalidation through a single nullity procedure; furthermore, in the opt-out state, the development and the practice and case law in the new UPC system could first be observed; if sufficient legal certainty is given, the patent proprietor can then enable UPC applicability again in the future as a result of an opt-in declaration.
(4) Choice of a competent UPC court location for patent infringements
Due to their experience, the German court locations Düsseldorf, Munich, Mannheim and Hamburg will also play an important role in the new UPC system. The court location Germany could be further strengthened by the fact that the central UPC court in Munich is not only responsible for the field of mechanics, as originally stipulated, but may also awarded the technical fields of chemistry, pharmaceuticals and human necessities (incl. health care); this field was originally intended for London, but is now available for disposition as a result of Brexit.
If there is no opt-out, the decisions of the UPC court will be directly effective in all countries where the EP patent exists.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our team. Dr Andreas Oser, LL.M. (firstname.lastname@example.org)