On January 18, 2022, after recently joining the protocol on a European Unified Patent Court (UPC) on provisional application (PPA) as the decisive 13th EU Member State, Austria deposited its instrument of accession to the PPA. Thus, the countdown to the grand opening of the UPC has now started. (The actual opening may take place in late 2022 or—more likely—in early 2023.)
Austria’s deposition marked the beginning of the Provisional Application Phase as of January 19, 2022, which will last at least eight months and includes preparatory work, particularly recruiting 90 legal and technical judges and administrative staff, testing the file management system, setting up the IT system, hosting inaugural meetings of the governing bodies and confirming the UPC’s budget. As Alexander Ramsay, chairman of the UPC Preparatory Committee, said in a press release issued January 19, 2022, the Provisional Application Phase will start with the inaugural meetings of the Administrative Committee, Advisory Committee and Budget Committee. In addition, following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the project, the Preparatory Committee must decide where to locate the UPC’s central division for pharmaceutical and chemical cases as the seat of this division was initially set to be in London.
As soon as the UPC member states are confident that preparations have progressed to the point where the UPC is functional, Germany will deposit its ratification of the UPC Agreement. Germany’s deposition will set the date for the start of the UPC’s operations and trigger the countdown to the UPC Agreement’s entry into force, which will be on the first day of the fourth month after the deposit. At that point, unitary patents (or European patents with unitary effect) will be available at the European Patent Office (EPO).
Once the Provisional Application Phase ends, a transitional period of seven years is triggered for European patent (EP) applicants and holders to decide whether they want to opt out of UPC jurisdiction and continue to pursue national patent litigation. Within this transitional period, EP applicants can opt in if their application is granted or even after the EP is granted—if no legal action has commenced before a national court.
The UPC will thus have competence for already existing EPs (if not opted out) and for the newly introduced unitary patents granted by the EPO. Both invalidity and infringement proceedings will be conducted before the UPC, which will consist of regional, national and central divisions as well as an Appeals Court and a Mediation Centre.
In a statement shared January 19, 2022, the EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton welcomed the start of the Provisional Application Phase, stressing the cost benefits of unitary patents: “For instance, a Unitary Patent covering a territory of potentially up to 25 Member States will cost less than €5,000 in renewal fees over 10 years, instead of the current level of around €29,000. The Unitary Patent will also reduce the gap between the cost of patent protection in Europe compared with the US, Japan and other third countries.”
Practice Note: Entities doing business in the European Union should check whether their intellectual property strategy is a good fit for the UPC entering into force and unitary patents becoming available.
Dominik Rissmann, a trainee in the Düsseldorf office, also contributed to this case note.