With the United Kingdom’s popular vote in support of leaving the European Union (EU) on June 23, 2016, questions may arise about the effect the referendum, and the UK’s possible exit from the EU, may have on UK and European patent rights and procedures. As it stands now, little will change.

The referendum was effectively an opinion poll. Should the UK government proceed with exiting the EU, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union provides an extendable 2-year period for a leaving state to negotiate an exit with the other member states. During that time the UK will remain a part of the EU, with all applicable rights, privileges, and obligations. Other aspects of the exit may continue for several more years, including, for example, the negotiation of a new trade agreement.

Currently, patent applicants may seek protection in the United Kingdom (a) by filing a national patent application at the UK Intellectual Property Office or (b) by filing a European patent application at the European Patent Office (EPO). The EPO is not a European Union institution, being established instead by a separate multilateral treaty, the European Patent Convention (EPC). Even if the UK is no longer a member of the EU, it will presumably still be a member of the EPO, allowing the UK patent attorneys to continue representing clients at the EPO. Under the EPC, a European patent, once granted, will still exist as a bundle of national rights that must be validated, maintained, and enforced in each selected EPC country. Patent filing, prosecution, maintenance, and enforcement will, therefore, be largely unaffected in the near term.

The UK’s potential exit from the EU may nevertheless impact certain aspects of UK and EU patent law in the future. Even the referendum’s outcome itself may delay or chill introduction of a new unitary patent and the Unified Patent Court in Europe. In addition, after exiting the EU, UK courts and lawmakers may abandon certain EU doctrines and perspectives of patent law. For example, the EU principle of free movement of goods, as embodied in rules on parallel imports, may no longer be recognized by UK courts. Likewise, UK lawmakers may choose to revise the UK’s national patent laws in a manner that is inconsistent with current EU principles, particularly in biotechnology and the life sciences where the UK and the EU have already experienced disagreements.

As such, while significant immediate effects appear unlikely, the referendum’s outcome and the potential UK exit from the EU present reasons for re-evaluating patent strategies in order to anticipate possible patent law changes in both the UK and the EU.