Patents are a key tool to encourage investment in innovation and encourage its dissemination. The European Commission constantly monitors the need for and effects of patent-related legislation across the EU. It is working to introduce cost-saving, efficient uniform patent protection across Europe and is looking at measures to enhance patent exploitation.
A patent is a legal title that can be granted for any invention having a technical character provided that it is new, involves an ‘inventive step’, and is susceptible to industrial application. A patent can cover how things work, what they do, what they are made of and how they are made. Anybody can apply for a patent. It gives the owner the right to prevent others from making, using or selling the invention without permission. Patents encourage companies to make the necessary investment for innovation, and provide the incentive for individuals and companies to devote resources to research and development. Patents also imply the disclosure of the protected invention. This fosters the dissemination of innovation.
Currently, (technical) inventions can be protected in Europe either by national patents, granted by the competent national IP authorities in EU countries or by European patents granted centrally by the European Patent Office.
The Commission is active in the implementation of a patent package. When it comes into force it will establish a European patent with unitary effect and a new patent court. The unitary patent is a legal title that will provide uniform protection across all participating countries in one step, providing huge cost advantages and reducing administrative burdens. The package will also set up a Unified Patent Court that will offer a single, specialised patent jurisdiction with exclusive competence over European patents litigation.
A utility model is a registered right that gives the holder exclusive use of a technical invention. In some countries utility models are sometimes referred to as ‘petty patents’ or ‘innovation patents’. Although there is no EU-wide utility model protection, the Commission monitors the economic impact of utility model legislation.
Supplementary protection certificates (SPCs) are an intellectual property right that serve as an extension to a patent right. SPCs were created by EU legislation to offset the loss of patent protection for pharmaceutical and plant protection products that occurs due to the lengthy testing and clinical trials these products require prior to obtaining regulatory marketing approval.
The rules on the scope and limitations of patent protection for biotechnological inventions are harmonised in the EU by Directive 98/44/EC on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions. Biotechnological inventions relate to products consisting of, or containing, biological material, or processes by means of which biological material is produced, processed or used. Such inventions are patentable if they fulfill the general requirements for patentability, i.e. novelty, inventiveness and industrial applicability.
The Innovation Union Communication that outlines a medium-term strategy for innovation in the EU includes a commitment to improve the economic exploitation of intellectual property rights. To fulfil this commitment, a Staff Working Document, 'Towards enhanced patent valorisation for growth and jobs' (186 kB) was published.
The document presents and analyses the major obstacles European companies, notably small and medium-sized enterprises, face in exploiting existing patents, especially so-called ‘dormant patents’. It also outlines short to medium and long-term options for making better use of dormant patents. This Staff Working Document serves as the basis for discussions on the need and ways to enhance patent exploitation.
The project, 'Exploitation of IP for industrial innovation' tested the design of a policy instrument that increases the likelihood of new business development based upon external IP acquisition, including unused patented inventions. It demonstrated that a policy instrument can be developed to increase the use of external IP by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) focusing on awareness and transaction costs.
The proposed policy seeks to:
The project also showed that it is not possible to develop a policy focused exclusively on dormant patents. It is best to implement the instrument at regional or national level as most SME support is managed at these levels and it offers the benefits inherent in proximity.