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EU Unified Patent Court Announces Intent to Launch on April 1, 2023

The EU Unified Patent Court (UPC) announced a launch date of April 1, 2023, however, the announced date should be regarded as a statement of intent for it could change. The launch timing has been the subject of various delays and setbacks, several due to unresolved legal issues. The UPC has also published an almost final list of judges. German Federal Court of Justice Judge Klaus Grabinski, who played a key role in drafting the UPC Rules of Procedure, will head the UPC. The majority of UPC judges will only be engaged with their UPC activities part-time (about 50% or 20% of their total work commitment).

The UPC judges are set to receive special training starting in March 2023, only one month prior to the announced launch date of the UPC, leading many to doubt that the April 1 date will be met. Once the new court is operational, owners of European patents will be able to litigate patent disputes across most EU Member States in a single proceeding, eliminating the need to proceed on a country-by-country basis.

Assuming the announced launch date is maintained, the “sunrise period” before the UPC becomes fully operational will commence on January 1, 2023. This sunrise period will last for three months, during which patent owners that do not wish for their existing European patents to be subject to UPC jurisdiction may opt out of such jurisdiction by filing a formal notification to that effect. The European Patent Office has also announced that during the sunrise period, European patent applicants whose applications are ready for grant will, if they wish, be able to delay the formal grant of the application until the UPC becomes operational so that unitary patent protection can be obtained.

The UPC has issued an implementation roadmap for events leading up to the entry into force of the UPC Agreement, with the court opening its doors and starting to receive cases as of April 1, 2023.

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European UPC All Set for Set Up as Protocol Enters into Force

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 [...]

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European UPC Almost Ready to Launch as Austrian Parliament Approves Ratification

Austria became the 13th country to join the protocol on a European Unified Patent Court (UPC) on provisional application (PPA) when the second chamber of the Austrian parliament (Bundesrat) approved the PPA unanimously on December 2, 2021. The Austrian government is expected to formally deposit its ratification shortly.

As expected, Austria followed Slovenia as the last of the 13 EU Member States that were required to ratify in order for the PPA to take effect. This group mandatorily included Germany, Italy and France (i.e., the three Member States in which the most European patents were in effect in 2012).

With the upcoming Austrian ratification, the UPC Preparatory Committee (Committee) will be able to formally start its work. Although there is no timeline set for the initial provisional application stage, the Committee expects that stage to take approximately six to 10 months. As stated in a note published by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on September 24, 2021, this stage includes the adoption of the secondary legislation of the UPC, including procedures, establishment of a budget, recruitment of judges and administrative staff, election of a president, final configuration and testing of the file management system and ensuring that all IT infrastructure is properly set up and secured. In addition, a working agreement with the European Patent Office (EPO) on patent application and validation remains to be completed. Many observers regard the timeline to complete preparations as challenging, noting that several of these steps will likely require significant discussion.

As noted in the Presidency of the Council’s statement, the UPC will be in force when these preparations are completed, which could be as early as the second half of 2022. The exact start date of the UPC and the Unitary Patent System depends on how long the initial provisional application stage takes. It also depends on when Germany formally deposits its UPC Agreement ratification, which has been withheld so far in order to give the committee time to complete its work. Once the UPC member states agree that the initial provisional application stage is almost complete (likely during the next two to six months), Germany will deposit its UPC Agreement ratification, which will trigger another four-month period before the UPC may officially take its first cases. The UPC will finally open its doors four months after that last instrument deposit. At that point, European patents with unitary effect could be available at the EPO.

Practice Note: Entities doing business in the European Union should check whether their intellectual property strategy is fit for the UPC entering into force and European patents with unitary effect becoming available.

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