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Harmonizing Patent Law: The Untameable Union Patent


Ullrich,  Hanns
MPI for Intellectual Property and Competition Law, Max Planck Society;

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Ullrich, H. (2012). Harmonizing Patent Law: The Untameable Union Patent. In M.-C. Janssens, & G. v. Overwalle (Eds.), Harmonisation of European IP law: from European rules to Belgian law and practice - contributions in honour of Frank Gotzen (pp. 243-294). Brussels: Bruylant/Larcier.

To the difference of trademarks and designs, protection of patents in Europe essentially rests on national law only. The 'European patent' as granted by the European Patent Organization through the European Patent Office, while internationally uniform as to the conditions of the grant, represents but a 'bundle' of as many independent national patents as have been asked for by the applicant. As a consequence, the terms of the exclusive right, which they confer upon their owner, are determined by the various national laws. It is to remedy this territorially fragmented and more or less diverse protection, that since about half a century the European Union attempts to establish an autonomous system of unitary patent protection of its own design, but has failed to achieve it whichever way it chose. The stumbling blocks have been not so much the proper determination of the substance of protection, since only little efforts of modernization have been undertaken. Rather, they were the choice of the language regime for the patents granted, and the establishment of a common patent litigation system. Both obstacles have a history of their own. While the latter is still evolving, the former actually has blocked the introduction of an EU-wide unitary European Union (ex Community) patent. Instead, a 'European patent with unitary effect' is about to come, which will cover only the territories of those EU Member States, which will participate in 'enhanced cooperation' within the Union, most likely a majority of 25 States. Switching from the entire Union to enhanced cooperation was, indeed, the not unwelcome opportunity not only to overcome the language hurdle, but also to modify the very structure of patent protection, and to try to move from a Union type of patent to an international one. The paper is concerned with, first, why the language regime could become or could be made a reason to move from a Union project to one of enhanced cooperation among “the willing”; second, with whether enhanced cooperation is a proper approach at all under Union law; third, with the problematic structure and nature of the 'European patent with unitary effect'; and fourth, with the no less problematic co-existence of an up-graded European patent as it will result from the eventual adoption of an 'Agreement on a Unified Patent Court' to be concluded among EU Member States only. The conclusion is that instead of obtaining a workable system of patent protection in Europe, we will have to face a multi-layer monster system of patents of all kinds, national, full and half European, Unionist, territorially fragmented or unitary, balanced or unbalanced in their substance.