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European Union Creates Unitary Patent System

Members of the European Parliament today approved a unitary patent approach that extends a common legal process across European Union (EU) member countries.

The new unitary patent system was formed from three Parliamentary measures, according to an announcement. The first initiative established a patent system to be recognized across all EU countries. Next, rules about the languages to be used for patents were set, mandating the use of English, French or German. Lastly, a proposal was drafted to create a patent court to settle unitary patent disputes.

A key date will be Jan. 1, 2014, which is when the court and the measures are expected to come into legal force. The creation of the court will depend on ratification by 13 of the 25 EU states, which must include ratification by France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Not all member countries concurred with the new unitary patent rules. Italy and Spain have opted out. However, the acts were pushed through by means of an "enhanced cooperation procedure," which permits some member groups to proceed with decision-making to break a deadlock, according to the European Parliament's FAQ. The effort to enact a unitary patent for EU countries has been ongoing for more than three decades.

The new unitary patent rules do not apply to software, according to the FAQ. EU countries do approve patents associated with software but only if the invention relates to some nonobvious technical advance, according to a Wikipedia reference article. An EU-published FAQ on the subject, dated from 2002, states that "…in order to be patentable, an invention that is implemented through the execution of software on a computer or similar apparatus has to make a contribution in a technical field that is not obvious to a person of normal skill in that field. This is essentially a legal question of a kind which is answered all the time by patent offices and practitioners."

Costs for filing and maintaining a patent will decrease. Under the present system, filings with the European Patent Office can cost up to €36,000 ($46,810), which can include €23,000 ($29,906) in translation fees. The new unitary patent filing will cost as little as €4,725 ($6,143) or as high as €6,425 ($8,354), with translation fees ranging from €680 to €2,380 ($884 to $3,094).

The patent renewal fees will partly address the cost sensitivities of some participating entities. For instance, the FAQ indicates that "translation costs will be fully reimbursed for EU-based small and medium-sized enterprises, natural persons, non-profit organisations, universities and public research organisations."

The aim of this new unitary patent effort is to reduce patent costs for inventors and address the litigation that tends to span different countries. There are currently around 146 to 311 patent infringement cases that are duplicated across EU member countries each year, according to the European Parliament's FAQ.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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