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3 June 2024NewsUnified Patent CourtMarisa Woutersen

Unitary Patent entices 27,500 registrations with SMEs making up a third

Unitary Patent system ‘exceeds expectations’ since launch | SMEs represent 35.5% of registered patents | Experts urge caution amid optimism, emphasising confidence in court judgments critical for predictability.

The Unitary Patent system, introduced June 1, 2023, has quickly gained traction among patent owners, with over 27,500 patents having been registered for unitary effect.

In its first year, almost one in four patents granted were converted into Unitary Patents at the request of the proprietors, reported the European Patent Office (EPO), today, June 3.

Notably, a significant portion of these patents—around two-thirds—originated from within the EU, resulting in a 24% uptake rate in 2024 alone.

Surpassing initial expectations, the Unitary Patent system's uptake has been popular among a key target group—small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

In 2023, SMEs accounted for 35.5% of the Unitary Patents registered by European proprietors.

EPO president António Campinos said: “Some technology startups are pushing innovation beyond what we thought possible.”

According to Campinos, the EPO aims to maximise the protection it offers while minimising costs and administrative burdens.

“The Unitary Patent is a major step forward in achieving these goals,” he added.

Demand for Unitary Patents surpasses expectations

The demand for the Unitary Patent extends beyond the 17 participating EU member states, reaching patentees across Europe and globally.

In its first year, 64.2% of Unitary Patents were registered by patentees from Europe (39 EPO member states), followed by the US (16.1%), China (6.0%), Japan (3.8%), and the Republic of Korea (3.3%).

The Unitary Patent is appealing in fields such as medical technology, civil engineering, transportation, measurement, specialised machinery, handling, and pharmaceuticals.

Leading the requests for Unitary Patents since June 2023 are pharma and tech industry giants Johnson & Johnson, Siemens, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Ericsson.

Matt Dixon, president of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys and counsel at Cranach Patent Attorneys, said the uptake of Unitary Patents has “exceeded our expectations” with a UP chosen for 1 in 4 granted European patents.

“We’ve been delighted to see so many cases before the court and so many British patent attorneys representing clients in both infringement and revocation actions.”

According to Dixon, the landscape of European patent litigation is “definitely changing”, as the courts and representatives spread out across Europe.

UPC's caseload ‘impressive’ but lags behind national courts

Although the Unified Patent Court's (UPC) 205 cases in its first year is an "impressive total," Mathys & Squire argued that "the UPC still has a long way to go before it becomes Europe’s primary court for patent litigation."

The UPC’s caseload was slightly ahead of the French courts, which heard 174 patent cases in 2021, and was a long way behind Germany, which heard 841 patent cases that year.

However, very few UPC cases have yet to reach any form of conclusion.

While a steady stream of substantive decisions from the UPC is expected over the next 12 months, said the firm, these will initially be first-instance rulings.

The new court's approach to substantive patent law will only become clear once a significant number of cases have been decided or referred to the UPC Court of Appeal.

In its first year, the UPC handled 39 stand-alone revocation actions, a stark contrast to the 3,775 oppositions filed at the EPO in 2022, a trend likely to continue according to Mathys & Squire.

Confidence in UPC's judgments crucial for long-term success

Nicholas Fox, partner at Mathys & Squire, said the UPC’s success is “notable but should not be overstated”, with most businesses preferring to litigate at a national level.

“For the UPC to become Europe's hub for patent litigation, it must demonstrate the value of continent-wide litigation to patent holders," explained Fox.

Fox also noted that both corporates and lawyers need to gain confidence in the UPC's ability to deliver predictable and robust judgments, as high-stakes patent litigation, especially in pharmaceuticals, remains predominantly within national courts.

Looking to the second year of the court, Dixon echoed Fox and believes the most important thing to look out for is the quality of the decisions made by the judges.

“It’s going to be crucial for the long term success of the court that the judges are seen to make sensible decisions. Patentees are going to want to be reasonably confident that they can predict the outcome of a case.

“They want reliable judgments,” he urged.

He predicts greater use of the court from outside Europe, as patentees gain confidence in the system, while others predict that the UPC could become the preferred forum for global patent litigation.

“That would be great for our patent attorneys, but I think we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves at this stage,” concluded Dixon.

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