Celebrating 50 years of the European Patent Convention

On 5 October 2023, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of signing the European Patent Convention (EPC). So, what exactly is the EPC, and how has it transformed the process of obtaining patents in Europe? How does it benefit your business? Vikki Townsend, our Senior Managing Attorney and a practicing European Patent Attorney with 25 years of experience will offer additional insights to address these questions.

History of the EPC?

In 1949, the Council of Europe first proposed the idea of a European system. It was for the central processing of patent applications from the many nations of Europe. The idea took some time to gain acceptance. The establishment of the European Patent Office in 1977 followed the signing of the EPC on 5 October 1973. EURATOM filed the first European patent application there on 1 June 1978. Almost 45 years ago, in December 1978, they initially published the case under publication no. EP 0 000 001. This protects a new heat pump design. EP publications are sequentially numbered. As of the time of writing, the most recent publication is EP 4 250 898. It’s evident that applicants have found the EPC popular over the past 50 years!

What is the EPC?

In 1973, 16 European states signed a multi-lateral treaty, the EPC. However, it has grown significantly over the past 50 years. Today, 39 participating “Contracting States” are from across the European continent, including the UK. The EPC embraces all member states of the European Union (EU). It has a much broader reach than the EU, even beyond the European continent, now touching on Africa and Asia. In addition to the 39 Contracting States, other countries have arrangements with the EPC. The European patent system permits the extension of its benefits. These include Bosnia & Herzegovina, categorised as an “Extension State” and “Validation States” Morocco, Moldova, Tunisia and Cambodia.

The treaty facilitates the central processing of a single European patent application in the European Patent Office (EPO). This can potentially become a national patent in any or all the listed states. Before the arrival of the EPC and EPO, if you wanted a patent to protect your invention in the 44 countries listed, you had to apply to a national patent office in each of those countries and follow the national procedures in all those countries in parallel. You needed to appoint a local attorney in each of those countries and correspond with them and their national patent office in their local language. As you might imagine, this was a hugely complex and expensive undertaking!

What happens when the EP is granted?

Thanks to the EPC and EPO, the process is greatly simplified today. European Patent Attorneys based all over Europe can file your European patent application at the EPO. They can support you in navigating the search, examination, and grant procedure.

Once you receive the European Patent (EP), you must choose the countries where you wish to “validate” your EP. Validating involves appointing local representation in each of the countries of interest. Sometimes, you must arrange the EP translations to meet local requirements.

After you are granted your EP, you hold a bundle of national patents. Each patent has a local, territorial effect in that nation. To maintain your bundle of patents, you must renew each annually. It is done by payment of fees to each of the national offices.

The EPC, the Unitary Patent (UP) and the Unified Patent Court (UPC)

In June of 2023, it became possible when validating your granted EP to “elect unitary effect”. You gain a Unitary Patent (UP) by electing unitary effect. The UP covers a set of EU member states, a subset of the 44 countries where you can validate your European patent. A UP protects these EU members as a block, so you pay a single renewal fee to protect the entire block rather than pay annual renewal fees in each country. Currently, only 17 of the 27 EU member states participate. It is expected others will join in the future

In June 2023, a new centralised European court began taking cases. The Unified Patent Court hears cases relating to the validity and infringement of UPs. EP applicants can currently “opt-out” of the jurisdiction of the UPC. If they have not opted out, the UPC will have jurisdiction over their nationally validated EPs in some EU member states.

How does this help my business?

The EPC offers a convenient and cost-effective way to obtain patents in multiple European countries where you do business. Pure Ideas can guide and support you throughout the life of your European patent. Our European Patent Attorneys can draft and file your European patent application. They can also help you navigate the search, examination, and grant procedures. Upon receiving an EP, our in-house Renewals and Validations teams with our network of global associates help you smoothly navigate validations and annual fee payments.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you, please get in touch with us.