After the death of the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA) as an international treaty, EU-EPLA has been introduced, promising the same undesirable litigation to only the European Union. The core of the proposal is the creation of an European Judge Academy and a specialized Patent Court under the pillar of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Brigitte Zypries, the German minister of Justice, wants this court not to be lead by regularly appointed judges, but by so-called technical experts. She promises better examination of the technical substance of the patents in corresponding processes. These technical experts are basically just another name for Patent Agents who have passed the Judge Academy. But what are those Patent Agents anyway?
The Patent Agents
A while ago, the European Patent Office (EPO) created a new class of working men called patent agents. These patent agents act as “technical experts” (Zypries definition) in lawsuits where a patent is challenged, and provide their expertise to the judge in trying to assess the validity of a given patent.
So what does it take to become a Patent Agent? The straightest way to find out is to apply as a Patent Agent to the European Patent Office. The response from the EPO is short and clear: all that is required is a degree in a field of Engineering. Law degrees are not required, since Patent Agents are currently only functioning as experts in court cases, and thus competence in legal questions is not a criterion.
This renders the whole idea quite absurd to send these patent professionals to a Judge Academy for some short period of time and to appoint them as judges who have to make legally valid decisions. A large number of legislations even require judges to have a law degree. A patent professional cannot be expected to make legally intelligent decisions.
Still no Division of Powers at EPO
But the problem in terms of legal issues goes even further. Currently, the EPO is one of the few international agencies which does not adhere at all to the principles of Division of Powers. Patents are granted by the EPO, which constitutes the legislative branch, and part of the enforcement process is also going through the EPO, which is the executive branch.
If EPO-educated Patent Agents are now entering the judicative branch, this means that this branch is also going to be under control of the European Patent Office. This means that the third pilar of a democratic society, the judicative branch, is going to be held by the same organization which holds the legislative and executive branch. This constitution of powers should be considered highly undemocratic, as the Division of Powers is one of the main principles of a democratic society.
There is no problem with Patent Agents as experts to judges which provide them with facts about the assessed validity of the patent in question (Well, it is still a bit problematic since these experts are coming from the same entity which originally granted the patent), but there is a serious problem if one organization gains total power over their entire legislative process.
What must also be considered is that the European Patent Office is not an EU institution, and as such not under democratic control by the European Parliament. This makes the entire constellation even more problematic, since there is basically no democratic body controlling the EPO.
Another issue with the proposal is that it introduces some artificial decentralization by establishing local patent courts. The idea is that a number of countries share one patent court, which might give a decentralized impression at first glance but is not decentralized at all on the second. A real decentralized patent court would mean that every country has its own patent court which elects its own set of judges.
In the case of EU-EPLA however, the European Union provides the regional courts with the technical judges, whose identity and meaning has been outlined some paragraphs above. This means that the individual member countries have no control over their local courts.
Dividing and Conquering
The last problem is more on the economic side as well as a problem with harmonization. Currently, there is no clear regulation in the European Union on how to deal with processes where patents are challenged. Thus, there are two different ways to deal with such challenges.
The first way is rather straightforward and is deployed in countries like Sweden. The procedure is rather easy: if the validity of the patent is challenged, then it will have to be decided on during the same process, along with the applicability of the same patent. This means that the plaintiff has to balance the scope of his patent very well because if his claims are too broad, the patent will be invalidated, and if they are too narrow, the patent will simply not be applicable in the proceedings because it will not cover the committed infringement.
However, in Germany and some other countries, a different procedure is in place. This procedure defines that a second process is created, potentially even at a different court. This means that potentially a different judge will be handling the patent validity case. This again means that the plaintiff could assume a very narrow set of claims for the patent validity case, while a very broad set of claims can be used in the applicability question in order to have a very broad infringement of the patent. This is only possible because the two cases are disjunctive.
This is just one more case of harmonization with the hammer. There are clear economic advantages of the first procedure, but nevertheless the second procedure is supposed to be harmonization but without any proper discussion of the issues. With all these problems, it is clear that this proposal is not in the best interest of the member states to accept this proposal. It is desirable that these issues are cleared up before the proposal can be accepted or rejected. Once there is a proposal which adheres to the democratic principles, a pan-european patent agreement is certainly warmly welcome.