The following is an invited guest post by William Bull. Mr. Bull is a researcher at the Maastricht European Private Law Institute (M-EPLI) at Maastricht University in the Netherlands
European countries have now almost reached agreement on the creation of a European Union patent with unitary effect and a 'Unified Patent Court' (UPC) to be established (primarily) in Paris in 2014 or so. The plan is to introduce a patent right valid throughout the territory of 25 of the 27 EU Member States (Italy and Spain remaining outside the process due to objections to the proposed linguistic regime) and, in tandem, a single patent court at European level with exclusive jurisdiction in infringement and revocation proceedings covering the same territory, in lieu of domestic courts. The UPC is to consist of two divisions; a Court of First Instance and a Court of Appeal. The former is to be further sub-divided into a Central Division (located in Paris, albeit itself with 'thematic branches' in London and Munich!) and additional regional and local divisions situated in various Member States.
It is by now de rigueur for any commentary on the European patent project to begin with a reminder of its protracted history. The idea of creating some form of common European patent system can be traced all the way back to the 1960s, and has been plagued by drawbacks and delays ever since. The most recent attempt to revive the project came in 2000 with a proposal for a Regulation on a Community Patent (following on from the Regulation establishing a Community Trade Mark (CTM) adopted some years earlier), and continued with an accompanying proposal for a Community Patent Court of 2003. The former would introduce a unitary patent right covering the entire European Union, while the latter would lead to the creation of a unified patent court with exclusive jurisdiction over both the new patent right and existing 'European' patents (that is, bundles of national patents) obtained under the European Patent Convention (EPC) system. Together, these proposals were to be the 'building blocks' for a future EU system, designed to overcome the difficulties posed by the need to acquire and litigate patent rights in different Member States.
Of course the European legislator is faced with this core dilemma in virtually any of the areas of law in which it has some competence to act, and European intellectual property law is by no means the only field where there have been lengthy deliberations over the need, form and likely success of measures seeking to instigate some 'harmonisation' of the law (in one way or another). The debate on the harmonisation of European private law (and particularly contract law) immediately springs to mind as an example, for this also began some decades ago, leading to the drafting of various academic principles, from the Principles of European Contract Law (PECL) in the course of the 80s and 90s, through the Draft Common Frame of Reference in the 2000s, and culminating in a proposal for a Common European Sales Law only last year. What makes the European patent project unique is the fact that it has focused on the introduction of an apposite pan-European court system as well as on matters of substantive law. The creation of a unified patent court for the EU is considered by many – not least the European Commission – to be a conditio sine qua non for the proper functioning of the proposed unitary patent. This is the case even though such a court would be unprecedented, and was not seen as necessary for either the CTM or the Community design introduced in 2002 (both of which are adjudicated upon by designated national courts collaborating with the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) via the general EU preliminary reference procedure). So it is the importance attached to this aspect of the patent debate that will readily come as a surprise to those operating in other areas of European law, including the sphere of European private law (EPL).
In spite of the many parallels that can be drawn between the debate on harmonisation of European IP law and that of private law more generally (not to mention other areas of EU law), however, there is a distinct lack of interaction among actors in the various subfields. This means that often similar arguments are used, but without benefiting from insights in the other field. It is therefore against this backdrop of academic fragmentation that we would encourage further comparison between the European harmonisation debate in areas such as patent law and contract law, as this should lead to lessons on what to encourage or to avoid in developing the two fields. In particular, since in EPL there has been hardly any discussion about the introduction of a European court in order to ensure uniform interpretation, we cannot help but wonder whether the significance of this issue in patent law is not overestimated. This is a particularly worthwhile question bearing in mind that if an alternative to the unified patent court could be found, this would greatly help the present political process, which now appears to be stuck on the issue of involvement of the CJEU.
In our view, there is nothing against splitting the two building blocks: in a paper that I wrote together with Jan Smits (available on SSRN) I argue that it may indeed be useful to introduce the unitary European patent, but I do not see the advantage of creating the proposed European patent court system, given a) the disadvantages of such a system and b) the possible alternative. First: the disadvantages of the proposed patent court system. From the perspective of end users, a rational patent litigation system depends on three main factors; expertise of the judges, the ability to make a speedy decision, and low costs. We doubt whether the new system would be able to provide these, certainly (but not only) in the short- to medium-term. Given that the regional and local divisions of the Unified Patent Court will be spread across Europe and necessarily composed of multi-national panels with the discretion to decide whether or not to bifurcate proceedings, it is difficult to see why the UPC as it is envisaged would fare much better against the obstacles to efficient litigation and uniform interpretation of differing levels of judicial expertise, patent cultures and language barriers. Second, a possible alternative to the now proposed unified patent court could consist of a competitive model of convergence of patent law. This model is based on the present European practice in which 50 to 70% of all patent cases in Europe end up before the courts of a very limited number of countries (and in particular before the German courts, of which the Düsseldorf district court is seen as market leading, dealing with more than 600 new infringement cases every year from all over Europe). The popularity of the German court system among European litigants apparently stems from its speed, high quality, commercial sense and the fact that the staying of an infringement procedure due to revocation is only rarely allowed.
In short, our point is that successful harmonisation of IP law may indeed be dependent on uniform interpretation of European rules, but this uniformity need not come from a common European court. It can also be provided by a national court, as long as individual claimants are allowed to choose the court of their liking. In fact, in the absence of any meaningful political compromise on a European court system in the last 40 years, such a market for patent litigation has already partly come to exist. Of course that is not to say that such an alternative is not without its own problems, but we believe that a competitive model of convergence has a lot of merit over the proposed European court system, which could easily prove to be an unavailing venture into the unknown.
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These questions are discussed in detail in the working paper by Jan M. Smits and William Bull entitled 'European Harmonisation of Intellectual Property Law: Towards a Competitive Model and a Critique of the Proposed Unified Patent Court', available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2117835.