European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium
European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium

In December 2012, the European Parliament approved legislation for a new unified patent court system, and on Feb. 19, 24 EU member states signed an agreement to participate in the new structure. InsideCounsel’s April issue took a look at the new system, which may go into effect as soon as 2014 (though it’s likely to take a little longer).

For companies interested in protecting their IP in Europe, an understanding of the unitary patent system will be paramount. Never fear, though, we’ve broken it down for you here, answering all the questions you’re sure to have about the advantages, drawbacks and potential savings:

How is the unified patent court going to work?

Simply put, applicants will be able to seek a patent from the European Patent Office, and get a patent that’s valid across all the participating member states. In the past, innovators had to apply for a “classical” European patent and get approval from each member state, or file separately in each state for a national patent.

The new, unified court will have jurisdiction over all existing European patents, as well as new ones, including for any civil litigation related to the infringement of those patents. There will be a Court of First Instance, with local and regional divisions and a central division with sites in Paris, London and Munich. Its Court of Appeal will be in Luxembourg, and the European Court of Justice will deal with any questions of EU law.

What are the advantages of the new system?

The unified patent court will save in-house counsel time, as they only have to apply to one entity to get a patent for all participating member states. The uniformity is also an advantage—no more worrying that what’s protected in one country might not be in another. For lawyers based in the U.S., the unified patent court will make the EU feel more familiar. Just as you don’t have to apply for patents in multiple states, you won’t have to apply for patents in multiple EU countries.

“[The unitary patent system] is a step toward Europe becoming the United States of Europe,” says Alain Villeneuve, a shareholder at Vedder Price.

There has to be a downside, right?

Well, the risk you run with getting a uniform decision is that you might not like what the court decides. Companies could see their patents revoked in one court and thus be dealt a serious blow across the continent.

The other disadvantage is that the system is still new and untested. It doesn’t resemble any of the existing European systems, and it wasn’t designed by judges or litigators. Some experts are concerned that judges may have differing amounts of experience with patent law, and it’s yet to be determined how they will be appointed.

What effect will the new system have on the cost of filing for patents?

It is going to be way, way cheaper. Currently getting patent protection through a “classical” European patent for all the participating member states would cost about €32,119. According to the European Parliament, the unified patent court will reduce that cost by up to 80 percent. During a preliminary “transitional period,” which will last for up to 12 years, the cost of a unitary patent will be €6,425, and will drop to about €4,725 after that time.