A large majority of EU member states have given the formal go-ahead for a single European patent to be established, despite strong opposition from Spain and Italy.
The decision by competitiveness ministers in Brussels on Thursday (10 March) means the European Commission can now come forward with detailed proposals in the coming weeks, potentially bringing an end the region’s fragmented and costly system of protecting intellectual property.
Spain and Italy have opted out of the European patent idea as it currently stands however, concerned that its three official language options (English, French or German) will disadvantage their businesses with extra translation costs.
The EU’s other 25 members have decided to push ahead under a procedure known as ‘enhanced co-operation’, enabling a minimum of nine states to increase integration in a certain area when the bloc as a whole fails to reach an agreement.
Hungary’s EU presidency hailed Thursday’s decision as “historic”. “The stars have aligned for European patent reform for the first time in almost 50 years,” said Hungarian minister for national economy Zoltán Cséfalvay, the meeting’s chairperson.
But Madrid and Rome have threatened legal action to scupper the plans, arguing that the patent’s linguistic criteria breach the EU’s single-market principles.
“We reserve the right to challenge this decision in court,” Stefano Saglia, Italy’s industry undersecretary, said prior to the vote.
European businesses on the whole are hugely supportive of a single European patent, frustrated by years of having to secure intellectual property protection in separate member states.
A patent validated in 13 EU countries costs as much as €20,000, of which nearly €14,000 arises from translation expenses, the commission estimates. This makes the procedure far more expensive than in countries such as Japan or the US.
Plans for a complementary European patent court suffered a setback however earlier this week, when the European Court of Justice ruled that current proposals contravened EU treaties.
Experts question the effectiveness of a single European patent without a more streamlined litigation system at the same time, offering Spain and Italy a glimmer of hope in their quest to block the region’s current plans.
But the commission and Hungarian EU presidency have insisted the court’s ruling can be overcome, with a range of alternative options likely to be examined in the coming weeks.