EPC celebrates 40th anniversary

This autumn marks 40 years since the signing of the European Patent Convention (EPC). This paved the way for the European patent that enables individuals and organisations to protect their innovations in a large number of European countries by filing just one single European patent application. Compared to the previous national system requiring a separate national patent application in each country, the EPC offered the applicants a system which was more efficient, significantly less expensive and more predictable.

The original convention was signed by 16 countries in October 1973. When the system was initially set up in 1977, it had entered into force in seven member states only: Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK. By the time the first European patent applications were filed in 1978, Sweden too had become a contracting state.

Today’s applicants can use the European patent system to protect their innovations in up to 38 member states. The patent then has the effect of a national patent in each contracting state where the patent is validated.

The European patent system has become extremely popular. In 2012 almost 258,000 applications were filed. A quarter of these were filed by US applicants, closely followed by Japan (20 percent), with Germany in (13 percent) in third place.

The European patent is not be confused with the proposed “unitary patent”, which it is expected will be introduced some time before the end of 2015. The unitary patent system is a complement to the existing European patent system.

Once the unitary patent system is in place, a proprietor of a European patent granted under the EPC will have the option of requesting that the European patent should have a unitary effect in 25 of the EU’s member states, as an alternative to today’s system of national validations. Italy and Spain havefor the time being chosen to stay outside the unitary patent system.