The European Parliament has approved the creation of a common European Union patent system, covering all member states except Italy and Spain.
471 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour of a single European patent system, while 160 voted against and 42 abstained. The vote follows a request made last December by 12 member states for a single EU-wide patent system to be created using the "enhanced cooperation procedure," after it was concluded that not all member states could agree on such a system.
Of the EU's 27 member states, all have indicated that they will sign up for the new procedure apart from Italy and Spain, which object to European Commission plans for EU patents to be published in English, French or Germany only. However, the two nations are free to join in the new system any time they wish.
The decision now goes to the Council of Competitiveness Ministers, who are expected to formally adopt the decision authorising the system at their meeting on March 9-10. The Commission will then submit two legislative proposals, one establishing the single patent (under the co-decision procedure) and one on the language regime (using the consultation procedure).
The language regime has proved the biggest obstacle to long-running attempts to develop an EU-wide patent system. In a joint letter, France and Italy's Prime Ministers have formally objected to the proposal, and it is reported that they may try to challenge it in the EU courts.
Currently, national patents can co-exist alongside a European patent issued by the European Patent Office (EPO) but the system is complex and expensive, costing up to 10 times more than a comparable US patent. A unitary system, abolishing differences between member states over patent rights, would make it easier and cheaper for inventors to protect their patents throughout the EU, help tackle infringements and create a level playing field for Europe's innovative businesses, say the scheme's supporters.
"For far too long, EU inventors and innovative companies have faced a significant competitive disadvantage compared to their global rivals," said UK MEP Malcolm Harbour, who chairs the European Parliament's Internal Market Committee. "I hope that Spain and Italy will soften their opposition to this proposals so that all EU countries can eventually be involved," added Mr Harbour, who is Conservative MEP for the West Midlands.
Intellectual property expert Keith Hodkinson, chairman of international law firm Marks & Clerk, also welcomed the Parliament's strong support for proposals to implement the compromise regime.
"The current regime with its cost barriers and wasteful use of resources has led to patchy protection across EU markets. This hasn't helped anyone, least of all the small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs} we are trying to help innovative," he said.
No single EU country would be excluded from the scheme - all can join or not as they choose, Mr Hodkinson pointed out, and added: "I trust that the Council will recognise this and allow those who want to pursue the ideal of a community patent to do so, even if one or two countries do not immediately opt in."
• The enhanced cooperation procedure can be used to enable a group of EU member states to adopt new common rules if a unanimous EU-wide agreement cannot be reached. Under the Lisbon Treaty, such a procedure may go ahead only after the Council authorises it, on the basis of a Commission proposal, and after the European Parliament has given its consent.
Creation of a single EU patent system represents the second time the enhanced cooperation procedure has been used, the first being the divorce law approved in 2010.