In the year under review, the number of European patent applications filed began to rise again, and the resumption of filings growth meant an increased workload for the European Patent Office (EPO). To keep pace with the higher demand for its services, the Office continued with its internal reorganisation. With the BEST project (Bringing Examination and Search Together) nearing completion, it made a number of changes to the grant procedure to speed up patenting without sacrificing quality.
Nearly 90% of the Office’s patent examiners have completed their BEST training and are now doing both the search work and the substantive examination for each of their dossiers. The BEST method allows the Office to guarantee continuity of service, as it gives the applicant a single point of contact throughout the procedure. Last year it was used for 124 000 searches (+20%) and 30 500 examinations (+53%).
The considerable resources that the Office has invested in the move to BEST are now expected to yield a return in the form of faster reduction of the backlogs. The introduction of new products such as the extended European search report will also underpin this objective.
Applications: general survey
Around 178 600 European patent applications were filed in 2004, almost 7% up on the final 2003 total of 167 400 (Fig. 1). As the total number of European filings is made up of applications filed with the EPO direct, with the national patent offices of the EPC contracting states and with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), its rise is also a sign of an upturn in patenting activity throughout Europe and the world.
Filings growth was apparent both on the direct European filing path and on the international route under the Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT). The number of direct European filings rose to 58 500 (+6%), while 120 100 European patents were filed via the PCT route (+7%). Of the applications filed last year, 42% came from the contracting states, 29% from the USA and 18% from Japan.
More and more European patent applications are being filed online. Last year, 14% of direct European filings came via the Internet, compared to 9% the year before.
Search: workload and production
In 2004, 160 300 search requests were submitted to the EPO, 6% more than the previous year (2003: 150 800). (Fig. 2) Around 76 300 of them related to European patent applications (2003: 71 800, +6%), while 62 900 concerned international applications (2003: 60 000) and 21100 came from contracting states’ national offices and from third parties (2003: 19 100).
The Office completed 165 800 searches, 4.5% more than the year before (2003: 158 600). Of these, 78 000 were searches on European patent applications (2003: 71 800, +8.5%), 65 900 were performed by the Office in its capacity as a PCT international searching authority (2003: 59 900), and 22 000 concerned national patent applications from the contracting states and other countries (2003: 20 800).
The number of outstanding searches again rose slightly. At the end of the year, 126 800 searches were pending, 2% more than the previous year (2003: 124 000).
Examination and opposition: workload and production
Last year the number of requests for examination filed with the EPO rose more than 20% to 108 300 (2003: 90 000), whereas demands for international preliminary examination under the PCT continued to decline, falling by 37% to 19 700. (Fig. 3)
To comply with the PCT’s mandatory time limits, the Office once again gave priority to PCT demands and carried out 27 800 examinations on them, 22% fewer than the previous year (2003: 35 600), using the streamlined procedure for about a fifth of them. By contrast, it increased the number of substantive examinations on European patent applications by 3.5% to 76 300, as against 73 800 the year before.
In 2004 the Office granted only marginally fewer patents than in 2003 (58 700 compared with 60 000). Thus since its foundation it has granted 707 000 European patents, equivalent to 5.4 million national patents. Around 23% of last year’s grants were completed within three years of the filing of the European patent application (2003: 21%). Despite faster processing, the number of pending European examination procedures rose to 263 500 (2003: 232 000).
The rising number of grants has led to more opposition proceedings before the EPO. Last year oppositions were filed against 3 100 patents (2003: 2 600), and the opposition rate increased slightly to 5.3%, as against 5.2% the year before. Some 2 000 opposition cases were settled (2003: 1 900) .(Fig. 4)
Appeals: cases received and settled
In 2004 the EPO boards of appeal recorded a 15.6% rise in new cases, up to 1 533 from 1 326 in 2003, and they settled 1 451 cases (2003: 1 425). (Fig. 4a) That brought the total number of appeals filed since the EPO was established to 22 152, of which 18 928 have been settled.
The technical boards received 1 491 new cases (2003: 1 273) and settled 1 401 (2003: 1 390). At the end of the year, 832 appeals had been pending for over two years, a 17% fall from the year before (2003: 1 002).
The number of new PCT protests filed with the technical boards was higher than the previous year, 43 compared with 29, and 32 cases were settled.
Twenty new cases were brought before the Legal Board of Appeal (2003: 40), and 33 appeals were settled (2003: 21).
The Disciplinary Board received nineteen new cases (2003: 9) and settled twelve appeals (2003: 13).
There were three new referrals to the Enlarged Board (2003: 4), which also settled five outstanding cases (2003: 1). (Fig. 4b)
Applications under the European grant procedure
In the year under review, along with 58 500 direct European filings, 65 200 Euro-PCT applications entered the European phase, 6% more than in 2003. Hence in the course of the year, European patent grant proceedings were instituted for 123 700 applications, as against 116 800 the year before (+6%). (Fig. 5)
Of these applications, 49.5% came from the 30 contracting states, 26% from the USA (1 percentage point down) and 17% from Japan (1 point up).
Some 98 800 procedures were concluded last year (2003: 80 000). 15% of the applications concerned were abandoned by the applicant after the search phase, while 26% were withdrawn by the applicant or rejected by the Office during the examination phase. 59% of cases ended with a European patent being granted. (Fig. 6)
The Office continued with its efforts to keep pendency times within acceptable bounds. Thus in 50% of cases, the search was completed after less than 7.8 months (2003: 10 months) and the examiner’s first communication was issued 26.1 months after the EPO received the application (2003: 29.6 months). The average time taken to grant a patent was 46.2 months, slightly less than the year before (2003: 49.2 months). (Fig. 7)
Last year, applicants made more use than the year before of the option of requesting accelerated search and examination under the PACE programme. The Office received 3 600 requests for accelerated search (2003: 3 100, +17%) and 6 300 for accelerated examination (2003: 5 100, +26%). Thus in 2004 PACE was requested for 4.5% of searches and 5.8% of substantive examinations.
European first filings
The trend among applicants towards filing their European patent applications direct with the EPO without claiming national priority continued to grow last year, with the Office recording 15 000 such European first filings (2003: 13 700, +9%), equivalent to 7% of the total (2003: 6%).
In 2004, the average filing designated fifteen states, two more than in 2003, and there were 27 700 requests to extend patents to extension states (2003: 26 961). (Fig. 8)
Technical fields with the most filings
Although the year under review saw applications filed in all the technical fields covered by the 128 classes of the International Patent Classification (IPC), there continued to be a marked trend towards filings in certain fields of technology. Of the 123 700 European patent applications for which European grant proceedings were instituted in 2004, around 55.4% fell into ten fields, the most popular being medical science (IPC class A 61; 11.1% of applications) and electrical communication technique (H 04; 9.8%). The EPO keeps a particularly close eye on the emergence of new technologies. (Fig. 9)
Last year, noting the growing significance of nanotechnology, the EPO as part of its technology watch strategy set up a project group which is working in close co-operation with the Technologies Division of the German Association of Engineers (VDI-TZ) to analyse the technology with a view to predicting future developments.
Nanotechnology is a highly interdisciplinary field that is still in its infancy, but it is already held to be one of the key technologies of this century, with R&D investment currently running at EUR 4 billion a year.
As recently as 2002, fewer than 2% of all published patents related to nanotechnology, but since then the number of filings in the field has increased sharply. If the market volume for nanotech products reaches the expected level of over USD 1 000 billion in 2015, this technology will then be a more significant factor in the EPO’s workload than telecommunications in the nineties, and on ethical grounds could present a challenge similar to that posed by biotechnology.
The Nanotechnology Working Group is using dedicated electronic tools to monitor this new technological trend, with a view among other things to helping the EPO management to decide on a suitable strategy.
In the course of the year, the EPO together with VDI-TZ, the epi and Licensing Executives Society International organised an International Symposium on Nanotechnology and Patenting in The Hague. Experts from science and industry along with representatives of non-governmental organisations and the European Union discussed technical, legal and ethical aspects of nanotechnology and exchanged information on the Trilateral Offices’ patenting practice in the field.
Examiner’s tools and documentation
The Office possesses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of technical documentation, which is indispensable for its search work and a key factor in the quality of European patents. Its main collection of data is accessible to the public on the Internet via commercial providers and the esp@cenet® patent information service.
To reinforce its leading position as a data provider, the Office focuses its documentation activities on two main aspects: improving the range and quality of its databases and continuously improving its online search tools.
Last year, the volume of electronically searchable patent documents in the EPO’s main database rose from 51 million to 56 million. The Office also maintains one of the world’s largest digital collections of facsimile patent documents and non-patent literature (NPL), and in 2004 the number of documents in this library increased to 55.6 million (2003: 49.7 million). (Fig. 10)
Publication activity was particularly high in the field of scientific literature, a major source of information in the biotechnology, medical technology and computing fields. At the end of the review period, 53 million articles in commercial NPL databases were accessible via the Office’s EPOQUE online search system. The complete versions of these publications can also be accessed through the EPO Virtual Library (EVL), a gateway to the Internet versions of 3 900 journals (2003: 2 900), conference proceedings, books and encyclopaedias of the major scientific publishers. The EPO has also developed an intranet repository of special documents (the Special Documents Collection), 177 000 of them in full-text form (2003: 70 000).
The EPO also put a lot of work into the development of keyword-searchable full-text databases last year, adding 1.3 million full-text patent specifications, including patents from Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. The collection now also includes unpublished European patent documents for in-house use.
By continuously extending its document collection, the EPO has already far exceeded its initial aim of guaranteeing that electronic searching offers at least the same quality as paper-based searches.
Data management and quality
In 2004 the Office continued the rebuild of its master database and the procedures which support data acquisition, formatting, classification and distribution. By using new technologies and optimising its processes, it expects to achieve further improvements to data quality, timeliness and completeness.
In line with the EPO quality policy, a quality management system for data acquisition and tool development processes has been introduced to support closer monitoring of the availability status of patent and non-patent documents.
A data collection’s usefulness largely depends on how easy it is to access. The Office refines its raw data by classifying patent documents in its in-house classification system ECLA, an expanded form of the International Patent Classification (IPC). ECLA comprises about 130 000 classification groups to allow for fast and systematic access to search documentation in all areas of technology. It can also be used in esp@cenet® searches, and is distributed to external subscribers on CD-ROM.
As in previous years, the EPO was the driving force behind IPC reform, a project seeking to modernise the IPC for use in an electronic environment and thereby make it more useful for intellectual property users large and small.
Computer-based search at the EPO
The cornerstone of computer-based search at the EPO is EPOQUE, a retrieval system tailored to the Office’s needs and providing access both to internal data resources stored on the EPO mainframe and to external databases. Most of the data that patent examiners need is spread over 90 databases loaded and maintained locally at the EPO. A search is in two parts: first the examiner identifies the relevant documents in the database system; then he consults the selected documents in their full form (facsimile) to study them in detail.
Every month, 4 800 patent examiners at the EPO and the national offices use EPOQUE for document searches. In 2004 they viewed a total of 206 million documents, 24% more than in 2003.
Last year, having completed the migration of examiners’ workstations to the Windows environment, the Office also phased out the use of the OS/2 version of all applications. The current EPOQUE version is Java-based for all thirteen of its applications and offers more functionality than under OS/2. The EPOQUE search engine is being rebuilt with a view to enhancing the system’s search capabilities and performance.
Over the past twenty years, the automation of tools for examiners has extended into practically every area of the examiner’s work. By launching the EPODOS project (Electronically Prepared and Organised DOSsier), the Office last year laid the groundwork for the development of an electronic dossier for handling patent applications together with all the related documents and data. EPODOS will thus bring together all the data needed for combined search and examination on one dossier or a set of related dossiers. Actual development work began earlier this year.
Research and development (R&D)
As part of its R&D activities, the Office designs and tests new tools, to perform tasks such as ranking search results by relevance, providing one-click access to multiple relevant files on the Internet or rapidly identifying text passages in patent images.
Further progress was made last year on moving existing intranet content under a Portal environment. This new information tool is designed to make internal communications and knowledge management more efficient.