11.1.1 Evolution of the European patent system
The European Patent Convention (EPC) was signed in 1973 and revised in 2000.1 It is a special agreement under Article 19 of the Paris Convention and a regional patent treaty under Article 45(1) of the Patent Cooperation Treaty.2 The EPC, however, goes significantly further than these treaties. What distinguishes the EPC is that it not only harmonizes substantive and procedural patent law but also creates a public authority with the power to grant patents completely independent from national patent offices – the European Patent Office (EPO). Patents granted by the EPO are called European patents.
Before the entry into force of the EPC, patent protection in multiple European countries could only be achieved by following the distinct grant procedures in each of those countries. The EPC now provides a single grant procedure in a single language (English, German or French, as the working languages of the EPO) for patent protection in up to 38 Contracting States.3
However, the procedure before the EPO does not supersede national grant procedures. When seeking patent protection in one or more Contracting States of the EPC, applicants have a choice between following national grant procedures before several national patent offices or taking the single European route before the EPO, which confers protection in all Contracting States designated by the applicant.
Once granted by the EPO, a European patent becomes a bundle of patents having equivalent effect to national patents, which must be validated in each of the selected Contracting States. The envisaged European patent with unitary effect removes the need for national validation procedures in the Contracting States participating in this system.4