Tuesday 5 May 2015

Cheerleading or judging? The CJEU upholds the EU's unitary patent system

Steve Peers

Two new CJEU judgments (here and here) have today upheld the legality of the EU rules on the unitary patent. To what extent are the Court's reasons convincing and coherent?


The background to today’s rulings was summarised in my previous blog post, on the Advocate-General’s opinion. Suffice it to say that: the EU has tried for decades to agree on patent rules, and the Treaty of Lisbon created a specific legal base for the adoption of EU intellectual property rules (Article 118 TFEU). The main rules are to be adopted by the ordinary legislative procedure (qualified majority voting in Council, joint power for the European Parliament), but the languages rules, which apply in this case to translations of the patent (or patent claims), must still be agreed by unanimity.

Since Member States could not reach the required unanimity on the patent translation rules, most Member States agreed to apply the process of ‘enhanced cooperation’, ie adopting EU legislation that applied to some Member States, but not others. This entailed a two-step procedure: authorisation of enhanced cooperation by the Council (by a qualified majority vote of all Member States), and then the adoption of the legislation to implement enhanced cooperation, with only the participating Member States voting. Spain and Italy challenged the initial authorisation (adopted in 2011) regarding patents, but the CJEU ruled against them in 2013. The two Regulations implementing enhanced cooperation in this area were adopted, in the meantime, at the end of 2012, concerning the substantive rules governing a ‘unitary patent’ and the language rules.  Spain (this time without Italy) challenged these measures in turn; those two challenges are the subject of today’s judgment.

The EU legislation on this issue is closely linked to two international treaties. First of all, the European Patent Convention, agreed in 1973, which binds all EU Member States and a number of non-Member States, and which sets up a legal framework for registering a patent in a number of European countries, by means of an application to the European Patent Office which it established. This results in a ‘European patent’, but the legal title concerned is not genuinely uniform, but depends on the national law of each of the countries where the patent is registered. The point of the EU legislation is to create a form of European patent that will have uniform existence in all of the participating Member States, also reducing the costs of translation that would otherwise apply.

The second treaty concerned is a treaty among Member States creating a Unified Patent Court, in order to reduce the costs of litigation concerning European patents and the planned unitary patent. (Although the CJEU had objected to aspects of these plans in its Opinion 1/09, Member States believe that they have addressed the Court’s concerns). That treaty will come into force once thirteen Member States, including France, Germany and the UK, have ratified it. So far six Member States have, including France. The application of the EU’s unitary patent law is dependent upon this treaty coming into force, and the unitary patents will only be valid in Member States which have ratified the treaty (all Member States except Spain, Poland and Croatia have signed it; all Member States except Spain, Italy and Croatia participate in the Regulations).

The judgments

Spain’s legal arguments against the two EU Regulations differed somewhat. As regards the main Regulation, Spain argued that it was invalid because it created a unitary patent dependent upon the acts of the European Patent Office, whose acts are not subject to judicial review. Secondly, the Regulation did not create ‘uniform protection’ within the meaning of Article 118 TFEU. Thirdly, there is a ‘misuse of power’, ie enhanced cooperation was used for a purpose other than the Treaties allow for. Next, the Regulation breached the rules concerning the conferral of implementing power upon the Commission, because it gives power to the Member States to decide on issues such as renewal fees.

As regards the languages Regulation, Spain argued that the special status of the French, English and German languages set out in that Regulation was discriminatory. Also, it argues that there is no legal power for the EU to regulate language issues in the event of a dispute, as the Regulation does, and that the Regulation violates the principle of legal certainty.

In both cases, Spain argued that the rules on adopting implementing measures were invalid, since powers to implement EU law were granted to a non-EU body, the European Patent Office. Also, it argued that making the application of the Regulations dependent upon the ratification of the treaty creating the unified patent court breached the principle of the autonomy of EU law.

The CJEU has rejected all of these arguments. In its view, the main Regulation doesn’t violate the rule of law, since it simply takes the form of a ‘special agreement’ as provided for in the EPC. Secondly, the Court said that Article 118 TFEU was the correct legal base for the legislation, since it established a system of uniform protection for unitary patents. It did not matter that it referred to national law as regards some issues, since Article 118 does not require the EU to fully harmonise the particular intellectual property right at issue, and at least this provided for more harmonisation than the EPC, which is in effect a bundle of national patents. Thirdly, there was no ‘misuse of power’, since the Regulation did not secretly aim at a purpose other than its purported end. Next, it was acceptable for the Regulation to confer upon Member States the power (acting via their participation in the EPO) to implement its rules, since the EU Treaties only require implementing powers to be conferred upon the conditions where ‘uniform’ implementing measures were required. Nor did the Regulation violate the ‘Meroni principle’ of an impermissible delegation of discretionary powers. Finally, the Spanish government’s challenges relating to the unified patent court treaty were inadmissible, and its challenge to the rules on the timing of the application of the Regulation were rejected on the merits. The Court ruled that the EU is free to defer application of EU legislation until preparatory steps have been taken, and that limiting the application of the Regulation to those Member States which have ratified the unified patent court treaty was acceptable, since it only affected a few provisions of the Regulation.

As for the languages Regulation, the CJEU ruled that while it was discriminatory in principle to confine translations to three languages only, there was no rule of EU law that all EU languages have to be equally valid as regards all issues linked to EU law. The discrimination as regards languages could be justified by the need for reducing costs and therefore encouraging innovation. It was appropriate to use the three languages already used by the EPO, in light of the link between the EPO and the EU system, and the EU law was not disproportionate, in light of the rules in the Regulation designed to address the concerns of patent holders using other languages. The Court also ruled that the entire Regulation fell within the scope of the ‘legal base’ relating to languages issues, and that there was no breach of the principle of legal certainty.


The CJEU did not really rule on any of the many interesting questions about the substantive grounds governing the implementation of enhanced cooperation, simply because Spain did not raise them. However, the argument relating to discrimination touches indirectly upon those issues.

Parts of the Court’s ruling are convincing, particularly as regards the possibility of delaying the entry into force of EU laws to wait for other developments, the ‘legal certainty’ issues relating to the languages Regulation and the legal base issue regarding the same Regulation. However, with respect, some of its reasoning was only partially convincing. The Court’s case for using a limited number of languages is sensible only if one accepts its underlying premise that the unitary patent system will have the overall impact of enhancing innovation. Many critics of the patent system argue that it does the reverse, by giving an overly lengthy monopoly to the patent-holders. To be fair, though, it would be too much to expect the Court to enter into this argument, particularly since Spain did not raise it.

Similarly, the Court’s argument that the Meroni principle was not infringed is sensible enough – if one accepts its separate conclusion that the main Regulation validly conferred implementing powers upon Member States. But that conclusion brings us to the chain of contradictions in the Court’s reasoning. For the powers that Member States will exercise when implementing the unitary patent Regulations will not result in divergent approaches in each country’s individual national laws, as is normally the case when Member States are left with the powers to implement EU law in practice. Rather, they must exercise their powers collectively, to adopt uniform rules regarding the unitary patent, within the context of the EPO. Indeed, the Court’s other conclusions insist upon the uniform nature of that patent. This points us inexorably toward the conclusion that uniform rules to implement the Regulations were necessary – which means (according to the Treaties) that such powers ought to have been conferred upon the Commission.

For the same reasons, the Court’s dismissal of the argument against limiting the application of the main Regulation to those Member States which have ratified the unified patent court treaty is unconvincing. The Court is indeed right to say that this limitation affects only a few provisions of the Regulation – but these are the provisions relating to the uniform nature of the patent, which the Court relied on so heavily when it defended the legal base of this Regulation.

This stress on the uniform nature of the patent also contradicts the first part of the Court’s reasoning on the main Regulation, which deferred to the EPC system and argued rather that EU law did not alter that system at all. The Court did not adequately answer the argument that the EU lacked power to do this, and entirely side-stepped the important argument that the EPO should be subject to judicial review. This contrasts with the Court’s famous insistence in Kadi upon the need for adequate review of international bodies whose acts impact upon the EU legal order.

In the Court’s view, the unitary patent system is valid because it largely refers back to the EPO system, and also because it does not. With respect, the Court is trying to have its cake and eat it too. A better argument would have been to embrace the hybrid nature of the system rather than run away from it. After all, the drafters of the Treaty of Lisbon were well aware of the existence of the EPO. In light of the discussions on a possible EU patent which were underway when that Treaty’s predecessor (the Constitutional Treaty) was drawn up, a hybrid solution based on a combination of the EPO and EU law was presumably exactly what the Treaty drafters were aiming to facilitate when they added Article 118 TFEU to the Treaties.  

Whether the Treaty drafters ought to have intended this is, of course, another question. But the best place for a debate about the fundamental merits of intellectual property protection is the political arena, not the courts. While today’s judgments confirm the legal validity of the EU’s unitary patent system, and enable it to go forward in the near future (after several more ratifications of the patent court treaty), their circular and contradictory reasoning suggests that the Court simply wanted to approve the patent system regardless of the legal arguments against. But this approach to judicial analysis could ultimately hinder, rather than bolster, the broader legitimacy of the unitary patent system.

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