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IP Cases & Commentary – Details

09 April 2013

Clinical Trials Exempt From Patent Infringement - Patents Act Supports UK Life Sciences Innovation

Garreth Duncan

On 26 February 2013, the UK Government announced a proposal to change UK patent law to exempt clinical trials of innovative drugs, for both regulatory approval and health technology assessments, from patent infringement. This is welcome news for the pharmaceutical industry as it finally clarifies the scope of this exemption, and the new, more liberal provisions could lead to more clinical trials of experimental drugs being carried out in the UK.

The question of whether research into a patented drug infringes the patent has been a controversial one in the UK for many years. Section 60(5) of the UK Patents Act generally exempts experimental use of a patented invention from infringement.

1985 Monsanto v Stauffer

However, the 1985 UK Court of Appeal decision in Monsanto v Stauffer limited the scope of this experimental use defence. The scope was restricted to acts carried out to find out something unknown about the patented product (for example, a new use), and did not cover acts carried out to demonstrate to a third party (such as a regulatory authority) that the product works. Although this case related to field trials of a plant protection product, the general wording of the ruling meant it also applied to trials of pharmaceutical products. As this decision has never been overruled by a higher UK Court, this strict interpretation of the exemption has put the UK out of step with other EU countries, notably Germany, which exempted some clinical trials from patent infringement.

2004 EU Directive

A 2004 EU Directive attempted to harmonise EU law on this matter. The Directive required Member States to exempt from infringement, trials of a patented, marketed pharmaceutical for the purposes of obtaining regulatory approval of a generic version, to be marketed after the patent expired. This Directive is commonly referred to as the ‘EU Bolar Directive’, after the corresponding provision in US law which exempts acts required to gain regulatory approval of a pharmaceutical by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from patent infringement. However, EU Directives are binding only as to the result to be achieved, and Member States have some degree of freedom as to the way they are implemented. In this case, while some other EU countries implemented the EU Bolar Directive broadly, to exempt all clinical trials of both innovative and generic pharmaceuticals from patent infringement, the UK implemented it narrowly and applied it only to trials of generic drugs.

The combined effects of the above provisions have meant it has long been uncertain whether clinical trials of patented, innovative medicines in the UK constitute patent infringement.

A particular issue arises when the pharmaceutical regulatory authorities or health technology assessors require an innovative drug to be tested against a comparator drug already on the market – if the comparator is patented, the patent could be infringed under the current legislation. This has prompted concerns that companies seeking to avoid the legal uncertainty on infringement are being forced to carry out clinical trials elsewhere. There was some concern that the UK implementation of the EU Bolar Directive was driving pharmaceutical research out of the UK.

2012 UK Government Public Consultation

In response to these concerns, the UK Government launched a public consultation in October 2012 – the results of that consultation have just been published. The Government has accepted the need to change UK patent law to exempt from patent infringement activities involved in preparing or running clinical trials involving innovative drugs for the purpose of gaining regulatory approval in any country. It has also accepted that the proposed exemption should also apply to activities involved in health technology assessments, such as those carried out by the UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which is the authority which decides whether the UK National Health Service (NHS) pays for an approved drug. The Government therefore plans to amend the UK Patents Act to explicitly exempt these activities from infringement.

Speaking about these changes, Lord Younger, UK Minister for Intellectual Property said:

“The government is keen to create a supportive environment for pharmaceutical research and development in the UK. Helping the industry get their products to market as quickly as possible will benefit patients, the industry and the economy.”

A summary of how the proposed law changes will affect trials is set out below. It is noted that the proposed changes will not apply to plant protection products, so Monsanto v Stauffer will still prohibit all UK field trials of such products for regulatory review.


 Old Law

 New Law

Clinical trials of generic drugs



Clinical trials of innovative drugs for regulatory approval




Clinical trials of innovative drugs for health technology assessment 





The new exemptions will be carried out by a regulatory reform order, so may come into force within the next few months. However, the exact terms of the exemption have not yet been clarified. In particular, the consultation results do not make it clear how broad the scope of the term ‘activities’ will be: it remains to be seen whether the exemption would only apply if one company both made and tested the patented drug, or whether a third party could supply the testing company with the drug and itself avoid infringement (a 2012 decision by the Düsseldorf District Court ruled that the third party would infringe in this case).

The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and The BioIndustry Association (BIA) have reportedly both welcomed this initiative.

We will provide an update on this subject as soon as further details of the new legislation are announced.

Useful links

UK Government announcement

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