A considerable majority, 471 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), cast votes in favour of developing a single patent framework, while 160 were against the move and 42 abstained from the decision-making process.
The approval follows a request submitted by 12 member states in December, for an EU-wide common patent system to be formulated using the "enhanced cooperation procedure", after the parliament conceded that not all member states would agree on the best course of action.
In all, 25 of the EU's member states have said that they will sign up for the new procedure, with only Italy and Spain counting themselves out. The nations have indicated an objection to European Commission plans for patents to be published in only three languages: English, French and German. However, the two countries will be free to join the new system at any point.
Following the European Parliament's green light, the decision will now be handed to the Council of Competitiveness Ministers, which is expected to formally embrace the move at a meeting to be held in March. Two legislative proposals will then be submitted by the European Commission: one establishing the single patent and one regarding the language regime.
This is the one aspect of the development process that has so far proved to be something of a stumbling block. In a joint letter, the prime ministers of Spain and Italy formally expressed their objection to the proposal and it has been widely reported that the pair may attempt to challenge it in the European courts.
As present, national patents are able to co-exist alongside European ones issued by the European Patent Office (EPO), but the system is regarded by many as being excessively complex and expensive. Compared to a similar US patent, the EPO current continental system can cost as much as ten times more.
It is thought that a single, unitary system, eliminating member states' differences over patent rights, will make it easier and more cost effective for drug developers to protect their patents throughout the EU. It should also help cut infringements and provide a more level playing field for pharmaceutical companies across the continent.
MEP Malcolm Harbour, who chairs the European Parliament's Internal Market Committee and represents the West Midlands, said: "For far too long, EU inventors and innovative companies have faced a significant competitive disadvantage compared to their global rivals."
He added: "I hope that Spain and Italy will soften their opposition to this proposal so that all EU countries can eventually be involved."
Speaking to Pharma Times, intellectual property expert Keith Hodkinson, chairman of international law firm Marks & Clerk, welcomed the European Parliament's support of the central patent proposal.
The current regime with its cost barriers and wasteful use of resources has led to patchy protection across EU markets. This hasn't helped anyone, least of all the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) we are trying to help innovate," he told the journal.
If the new regime is implemented, no EU country would be excluded, with all invited to join or abstain as they wish.
"I trust that the Council will recognise this and allow those who want to pursue the ideal of a community patent to do so, even if one or two countries do not immediately opt in," Hodkinson added.
The Council of Competitiveness Ministers will meet on March 9th 2011, when members are expected to formally adopt the decision to authorise the central patent system.