Milan: home of fashion, of a historic soccer rivalry, and of… intellectual property protection? Well, of course! Milan is a center of life science innovators and international property expertise. The Milanese Court manages most of Italy’s patent litigation and hosts the majority of Italy’s intellectual property practitioners.
In response to the Brexit vote, the Italian Trade Body in Milan (L’Ordine dei Consulenti in Proprietà Industriale) wants to replace the Court of First Instance in London, which handles claims related to pharmaceutical patents, since the court would apply EU law and Court of Justice of European Union (CJEU) rulings. The UK Intellectual Patent Office (UKIPO), however, stated that it will preserve and implement EU regulations and abide by them as signatory to the Unified Patent Court Agreement (UPCA). The UK was historically one of the main supporters of the unified patents, had lobbied extensively to host the court in London, and had worked in advance in preparation for the system.
Intellectual property protection is a huge factor in the EU’s goal of harmonizing domestic laws, mainly achieved by removal of technical obstacles and implementation of directives. Recently, the focus has been on harmonizing the intellectual property industry, especially patents. The European Patent Convention (EPO) was signed in agreement in 1973, independent from the EU, comprised of EU and non-EU members. In 2013, 25 EPO States signed the Unified Patent Court Agreement (UPCA). It aims to establish the Unified Patent Court (UPC) and a system of uniform patent protection throughout EPO States on new patents from any other EPO State. Although it is independent from the EU, it comprises mostly EU law and can only be ratified by EU members. The UPC will centralize disputes through a main court in Paris with jurisdiction over legal disputes regarding patents, and two courts with jurisdiction over patents with specialized subject matter; one in Munich for engineering issues and one in London for disputes in pharmaceuticals and life sciences.
UK patent laws are formed by a mixture of domestic and EU laws, as many have been enacted in response to treaties and European cooperation. The UK’s ratification will not have an effect on its domestic laws, since it already includes EU law and is a signatory of the EPO. The organization will carry out the patent process as scheduled.The current UK patent system is governed by the Patents Act of 1977. This act was framed to comply with the terms of international agreements, mainly the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), which although was never ratified by the EU, it was created by its predecessor, the EEC, pursuant to which the UK aligned its patent infringement provisions. UK patent law is within the EU legislative framework in the areas of competition law defenses and relief for infringement for intellectual property. UK supplemental protection certificates, a form of intellectual property protection which compensates for a period between filing and granting of a patent application for pharmaceuticals, is also governed by legislation implemented pursuant to EU regulation. Additionally, the UK is expected to be an EU member until at least 2019. During this period, the country will operate under a transitional framework pursuant to EU legislation. The government has stated that it will keep implementing EU directives and that the courts will continue to interpret EU law.
In the case of an actual Brexit, the UK will likely ratify the court through the transitional framework of an EU exit or will lose its ratification vote and the UPC will be established through the very likely ratification of the rest of the EU. Even if the UK does not ratify the UPC, its patent law will be heavily influenced by EU law and it will remain an EPO member. If the UK does ratify the new court system, it would entwine UK law even closer to EU law by granting the court jurisdiction to resolve patent disputes covering EU members that have chosen to participate in the system. In the case of Brexit, there would be no fundamental reason for the UK not to participate, but its participation would have to be secured by separate agreements with other countries. Since the agreements would have to be done with EU members, the UK government would have to implement laws to ensure compliance with EU laws. The UK will likely consider three agreements: It remains a European Economic Area (EEA) member, it joins the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), or it maintains a trade partnership with the EU.
First, if it remains part of the EEA, court references will be made to EFTA courts and not the CJEU. However, EFTA functions to ensure uniform interpretation of EU law and the EEA has adopted EU intellectual property regulation regarding medicinal and plant protection products. That may not seem important, but patent protection on medicinal products serve as “life blood” of the pharmaceutical industry, which generates 10% of the UK’s GDP, employs 100,000 people, and allows the UK to host clinical trial markets, foreign companies, and European medicinal organizations. Second, if the UK joins EFTA, some of the remaining EU legislation could be expected to apply, especially through the transitional framework. Third, if the UK decides to just trade with the EU, it would operate pursuant to a bilateral trade agreement, making it subject to CJEU jurisdiction and to EU law implementation to prevent gaps in legislation and in judicial opinions. Historically, UK judges have been influenced by decisions from other European judges, meaning they will keep referencing to CJEU rulings.
In conclusion, in the field of patent protection, the EU has ostensibly achieved its goal of unity through embedded values, from which the UK will find it hard to separate. Europe does not have to worry as Brexit will not adversely affect European patent protection or UK patent law. The UK will still be guided by EU law regardless of whether it leaves the Union.
John Rizos is a 3L at the University of Baltimore School of Law with a concentration in International Law. He has an interest in human rights and international criminal law. In addition to being a CICL Fellow, John has served as the Secretary for Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity and is currently enrolled in HarvardX’s online course, “Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster.” In June 2016, John was a member of the CICL Fellows team that, under the supervision of Professor Moore, assisted in drafting an amicus brief to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was later approved and published. John graduated with honors from Towson University with a BA in International Studies (2013). He has interned at the Press Office of the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the International Civil Advocacy Network (ICAN), a non-profit organization advocating for women’s rights in the Middle East.