About the author:
Kate Hickinson is a partner and patent attorney in our Manchester office. Kate handles all types of chemical subject matter and has considerable experience and expertise in the pharmaceutical area having worked in-house at AstraZeneca for several years. Kate is experienced in working with clients to help them to identify the best ways to protect their inventions.
In the pharmaceutical area, Kate has experience filing and prosecuting patent applications directed to new chemical entities, chemical processes, formulations, solid forms and combination therapies, as well as experience of SPCs and data exclusivity.
With 1 June 2023 being the start date of the Unitary Patent system, applicants achieving allowance of their European patent applications in the coming months may wish to delay grant so as to obtain a Unitary Patent (UP).
Obtaining a UP from a European application
European applications will continue to be filed and prosecuted at the European Patent Office (EPO).
Upon grant of the European application, a patentee wishing to obtain a Unitary Patent will request unitary effect so as to obtain a single Unitary Patent covering all EU states that have ratified the UPC agreement (hereinafter referred to as the “UPC-states”).
A request for a Unitary Patent can be filed provided that the patent is granted with the same set of claims in relation to all UPC-states, and the request must be filed at the EPO within one month of the date of grant.
The final stages of the grant process begin with a communication under Rule 71(3) EPC from the EPO indicating the text on which the patent is to be granted.
The applicant has a four-month period to complete grant formalities, including approving the text and filing claims translations. Grant of a patent usually occurs about 5 to 6 weeks after completion of the grant formalities by the applicant.
Taking account of these timelines, patent applications for which a communication under Rule 71(3) EPC issued in or after December 2022, could possibly be converted into a Unitary Patent without taking additional steps, if the applicant makes use of the full periods of time for taking the relevant actions at the EPO.
Possible actions to take to delay grant now
Applicants who want to obtain a Unitary Patent may wish to take actions to potentially delay grant in order to ensure that this option remains achievable.
- Grant of a patent may be delayed by making use of the full term for responding to the communication under Rule 71(3) EPC once issued.
- Grant of a patent may also be delayed by failing to respond to the communication under Rule 71(3) EPC. The application will be deemed withdrawn, but further processing for the response can be used to reinstate the application. This option could delay grant by around 2 to 3 months if the whole further processing period is used.
- Another option is to file amendments and disapprove the text for grant in response to the communication under Rule 71(3) EPC. If the amendments are accepted, another 71(3) communication will be issued setting another 4-month period for response. There is a small risk with this approach that an Examiner could reopen examination, but such circumstances are rare and if only minor amendments are made then this should not present a problem.
- Divisional applications may also be used to ensure that an application is pending to enable a Unitary Patent to be pursued.
Transitional measures offered by the EPO
Delaying grant to obtain a Unitary Patent
In order to prevent the above actions being required, the President of the EPO has announced that it will, for a temporary period, be possible to formally request a delay to the grant of a European patent until the Unitary Patent system has begun.
This temporary period began on 1 January 2023 and will end on the date that the UPC agreement comes into force, i.e. 1 June 2023.
In order to request the delay, it will be necessary for the applicant to have received a communication under Rule 71(3) EPC but not yet have approved the text for grant.
The request for delay will require the filing of a form at the EPO, which form must be filed before or on the same day as the approval of the text for grant.
It will be possible to withdraw a request for the delay of grant at any time.
Early request for a Unitary Patent
It is now possible (during a temporary period that began on 1 January 2023) to file an early request for a Unitary Patent on any application for which the EPO has issued a communication under Rule 71(3) EPC, such that the request may be filed before grant.
In this case, the applicant must also ensure that grant does not occur before the UPC agreement enters into force (as this would invalidate the request for a Unitary Patent).
Thus, applicants filing an early request for a Unitary Patent should also file a request to delay grant at the EPO.
Please get in touch with your normal advisor or Kate Hickinson if you would like to discuss whether, or how, to delay grant of your current European patent applications.
Previously published June 2022
Updated: December 2022, February 2023