By Giuliana Miglierini
In parallel to the new pharmaceutical legislation, on 27 April 2023 the EU Commission issued the proposal for the new framework protecting intellectual property (IP). The reform package impacts on the pharmaceutical industry, as it contains proposals on Supplementary Protection Certificates(SPCs) and compulsory licensing (CL) in crisis situations. It also includes a new Regulation on Standard Essential Patents(SEPs).
The proposed reform, which is part of the EU Industrial Strategy, will now undergo the scrutiny of the European Parliament and Council. It aims to improve European competitiveness, innovation and technological sovereignity, with a special attention to the role played by SMEs. The proposal is based on comments received during the consultation on the Action Plan on Intellectual Property issued in November 2020. The IP legislative framework will complement the Unitary Patent system, that will fully entry into force on 1 June 2023.
Supplementary Protection Certificates
Central to the reform of the SPC system is the creation of a unitary SPC to complement the Unitary Patent. The aim is to reduce the current fragmentation in the issuing of SPCs at the national level, which often leads to complex interpretation of patents’ expiry dates, and consequent legal uncertainty. The new system would not replace the existing national SPC schemes.
Procedures should be simplified, with a single application to be submitted to the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), which would be responsible for its central examination in close cooperation with EU national IP offices. The process would lead to national SPCs granted for each of the designated member states (MS), plus a unitary SPC if required by the applicant (here the Q&As).
According to the Commission, approx. 25% of current SPC procedures have contradictory outcomes. The mean number of annual SPC applications is 81 per MS, with a total cost of €192,000 over the 5 years of duration (compared to roughly €3,000 in the US and €4,200 in Japan). Savings from the new procedures may amount to up €137,000 for the EU27 wide, five years long SPC protection. A central SPC database is also planned in order to increase transparency.
The proposed reform is comprehensive of a Regulation specific to medicinal products and a second one focusing on plant protection products, plus parallel recasting regulations to review the current legislative provisions (i.e. Regulation (EC) No 469/2009). Innovators would be incentivised to use unitary SPCs, since otherwise a unitary patent could be extended at higher costs only by means of national SPCs. Infringements of unitary SPCs would fall under the judgement of the UPC Court.
The Commission expects the development and access to generic medicines will be facilitated. In particular, SMEs will be able to submit observations during the examination of a centralised SPC application, and to file an opposition in order to centrally challenge the validity of the SPC protection, if justified. The new framework complements the proposed pharmaceutical legislation, for example on the Bolar exception. This should allow the generic industry to perform research and testing for preparing regulatory approval also while a patent/SPC is still in force.
Compulsory licensing may be used during crisis in order to provide access to relevant products and technologies, should result in impossible (or not adequate) to close voluntary licensing agreements with owners of IP rights. The current fragmentation of procedures at the national level results in a wide legal uncertainty (see also the published Q&As). The new framework would complement other EU crisis tools, such as the Single Market Emergency Instrument, HERA regulations and the Chips Act.
According to the proposal, a Union compulsory licence can only be granted after activation of an emergency or crisis mode at EU level. Instruments to trigger this fundamental passage are listed in an Annex, so to improve legal certainty. A remuneration scheme for IPR holders is also included, on the basis of successive steps in the activation and termination of compulsory licensing.
The existing national frameworks on compulsory licensing will continue to operate, and they may be used to manage local crisis. Compulsory licensing of exported products would not be allowed.
SEPs refer to technologies essential for the implementation of a technical standard adopted by a standard developing organisation. They are typical of the ITC industrial sector, and central to building the Internet of Things.
To improve the transparency and legal certainty of SEPs, the proposal aims to ensure innovation would be run in the EU by both EU SEP owners and implementers. End users would benefit from products based on the latest standardised technologies at fair and reasonable prices. SEPs licensing is based on the FRAND scheme (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) for the remuneration of patent holders.
Comments from the stakeholders
EFPIA granted positive feedback on the simplification and harmonisation of the SPC system and to the opportunities offered by the unitary SPC. On the other hand, the proposals on compulsory licensing didn’t find the agreement of the research-based pharmaceutical industry.
According to a note, voluntary licensing would be the preferred instrument for innovators, as it allows for the choice of the best-positioned and trusted partners to speed up production and distribution of medicinal products during health crisis. On the contrary, compulsory licensing is seen as a threat to investment stability of the EU’s IP system and to the overall innovation pipeline.
“Protecting the EU’s intellectual property framework could not be more important if we are to close the investment gap between Europe, the US and increasingly China and continue to offer patients the best possible treatments. Yet we are seeing multiple proposals emerging from the European Commission in the pharmaceutical legislation and patent package which tend towards the opposite”, said EFPIA Director General Nathalie Moll.
Medicines for Europe (MfE), on behalf of the generic and biosimilar industry, said that while “voluntary licensing agreements are relevant for health crises, we will contribute constructively to the EU-wide compulsory licensing system”. The request to the Commission is to make it a remedy also for anti-competitive abuses of the patent system, according to art. 31(k) of the TRIPS Agreement.
As for new SPCs, MfE highlights the new regime would extend their geographical scope from the current 20 out of 27 MS covered on average. “The proposal for a reform in the SPC system has the potential to reduce fragmentation in Europe but the legislation must ensure improved quality and transparency of granting procedures to prevent misuse by right holders to delay competition”, said MfE Director General Adrian van den Hoven.
Critics of the proposed scheme for compulsory licensing also came from EUCOPE, representing pharmaceutical entrepreneurs. According to the Confederation, the Commission’s proposal would further weakening the value of intellectual property rights within the EU. “Together with the proposal on the revision of the general pharmaceutical legislation, it is another indicator that the development of an innovation-friendly environment is not a priority, contrary to statements in the Intellectual Property Action Plan”, it states in a note.
For EUCOPE, the proposed SPC regime would not amend the substantive elements of the current system. Furthermore, a centralised SPC application would only be possible on the basis of a European patent, including a unitary patent, and for products with a centralised marketing authorisation. EUCOPE position goes for an optional EU-wide SPC, so to allow flexibility for IP owners in deciding their strategy for the protection of IP rights.