The European Patent Office might grant the first unitary European patent as early as 2013. Forty years in the making, the European Council pushed through draft regulations governing the unitary patent system in record time under the EU's 'enhanced cooperation' procedure. The last remaining contentious issue—the central court's location—will be decided by June 2012, Member States agreed at a summit held in January 2012.

At present, Europe is a collection of national patent systems—a situation that makes patent litigation expensive, complicated and can lead to different decisions on the same patent. A unitary patent system would solve most of these issues. Patent proprietors will be able to choose a European patent with protection in specific states or a unitary patent with protection in all states participating in the scheme, or a combination of both. Proprietors will also be able to pursue litigation through a single legislative and judicial system made up of central, regional and local courts.

But some critics argue that the draft regulations contain too little detail on the proposed judicial process. The level of technical competency required by judges is not specified, neither is the language of local court proceedings, or how the courts will be financed. These unsettled matters, if not amended, might make the new system “more costly and more uncertain,” says Tim Roberts, president of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys in London.

Despite its shortcomings, the progress is welcome. “From a university perspective a unitary patent would be fantastic,” says Alexander Weedon, head of business and legal affairs at UCL Business in London. Obtaining a patent valid in most of Europe can cost up to €100,000 ($126,000), the majority spent on validating the patent in each country and translation, he says. The cost of a unitary patent would be €680 ($890) in addition to the roughly €2,000 ($2,600) procedural fee for an initial patent application. “That would be a massive benefit,” says Weedon. “We could file another 6 or 7 patents on the savings.” Nathalie Moll, Secretary General of EuropaBio, agrees. “For SMEs [small- to medium-sized enterprises], the costs were simply stifling. At no other time, has such a need for simplified and cost-effective procedures to support innovation in Europe been more relevant.”