Applications: general survey
In the year under review, the number of European patent applications filed again rose substantially. Almost 194 000 European patent applications were filed in 2005, 7.2% up on the final 2004 total of 180 700. As the total number of European filings is made up of applications filed directly with the EPO, with the national patent offices of the EPC contracting states and with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), its further rise is indicative of intense patenting activity throughout Europe and the world. Fig. 1
Of the applications filed last year, 42% came from the contracting states, 27% from the USA and 20% from Japan.
Filings growth was apparent both on the direct European filing path and on the international route under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The number of direct European filings rose to 60 800 (+ 3.8 %), while 132 900 European patent applications were filed via the PCT route (+ 8.8%).
The trend among applicants towards filing their European patent applications directly with the EPO without claiming national priority continued to grow last year, with the Office recording 16 900 such European first filings (2004: 15 300), equivalent to 10.2% of the total number of European patent application filings.
More and more European patent applications are being filed online. Last year, 23.4% of direct European filings came via the Internet, compared to 13.8% the year before.
Denmark, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden joined Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK as online filing offices.
Use of online services continued to grow all round: the European Register now has 7 000 users, and Public file inspection provides access to an average of 23 000 dossiers per day.
Search: workload and production
In 2005, 167 800 search requests were submitted to the EPO, 4.7% more than the previous year (2004: 160 300). Around 87 000 of them related to European patent applications (2004: 76 300), while 65 100 concerned international applications (2004: 62 900) and 16 100 came from contracting states’ national offices and from third parties (2004: 21 100).
The Office completed 163 100 searches, 1.6% down on the year before (2004: 165 800). Of these, 74 100 were searches on European patent applications (2004: 78 000), 69 700 were performed by the Office in its capacity as a PCT international searching authority (2004: 65 900), and 19 400 concerned national patent applications from the contracting states and other countries (2004: 22 000). Fig. 2
The number of outstanding searches rose again. At the end of the year, 119 800 searches were pending, 2.1% more than the previous year (2004: 117 300).
Last year, applicants made more use of the option of requesting accelerated search and examination (PACE). The Office received 4 190 requests for accelerated search (2004: 3 640). Thus PACE was requested for 4.8% of European searches.
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 6.4 months (2004: 7.8 months).
The new Rule 44a EPC entered into force in July. It provides for a European search opinion to supplement the existing European search report. This opinion contains a first assessment of the patentability of the claimed invention, giving the applicant added value on top of the search report and enabling earlier risk management.
Examination and opposition: workload and production
Last year the number of requests for examination filed with the EPO decreased 5.5% to 102 300 (2004: 108 300), whereas demands for international preliminary examination under the PCT continued to decline, falling by 38.7% to 12 100.
To comply with the PCT’s mandatory time limits, the Office once again gave priority to PCT demands and carried out 18 000 examinations on them, 35.4% fewer than the previous year (2004: 27 800). By contrast, it increased the number of substantive examinations on European patent applications by 10.1% to 84 000, as against 76 300 the year before.
Along with 60 800 direct European filings, 67 900 Euro-PCT applications entered the European phase in 2005, 4.1% more than in 2004. Hence in the course of the year, European patent grant proceedings were instituted for 128 700 applications, as against 123 800 the year before (+ 4.0%). Of the 128 700 European applications for which European grant proceedings were instituted in 2005, around 55.7% fell into ten fields, the most popular being medical science (IPC class A61; 11.4% of the applications) and electrical communication technique (H04; 10%).
Of these applications, 49.5% came from the 31 contracting states, 25.4% from the USA and 16.7% from Japan. The top three filers with the EPO in 2005 were Philips, Siemens and Samsung. Fig. 3
About 100 000 procedures were concluded last year (2004: 106 000). 18.5% of the applications concerned were abandoned by the applicant after the search phase, while 28.2% were withdrawn by the applicant or rejected by the Office during the examination phase. 53.3% of cases ended with a European patent being granted.
In 2005 the EPO granted 53 300 patents, compared with 58 700 in 2004. Thus since its foundation it has granted 760 700 European patents, equivalent to 6.3 million national patents. Last year 25.3% of grants were completed within three years of the filing of the European patent application (2004: 23.4%). The average time taken to grant a patent was 45.3 months, significantly less than the year before (2004: 46.2 months). The Office received 6 630 requests for accelerated examination (2004: 6 300). Thus in 2005 PACE was requested for 6.5% of substantive examinations. Fig. 4
Despite faster processing, the number of pending European examination procedures rose to 284 400 (2004: 263 500). With the amendment of the time limit in Article 97(5) EPC, unnecessary delays in publication of the patent specification will no longer occur in cases where early publication could be effected, which would help to meet the criteria laid down by the 1999 Paris intergovernmental conference.
The slightly lower number of grants meant fewer opposition proceedings before the EPO. Last year oppositions were filed against 2 960 patents (2004: 3 100), and the opposition rate increased slightly to 5.4%, as against 5.3% the year before. Some 2 330 opposition cases were settled (2004: 1 980).
Given the rapid pace of development in the European patent system, and in particular the sharply rising demand for European patents and the growing complexity of the applications filed, ever greater importance attaches to quality assurance in the grant procedure. In response to this situation, the EPO management last year took steps to set up a quality management system (QMS) for search and examination. Development of this system, based on the ISO 9001 standard, is the responsibility of a newly established Principal Directorate Quality Management, made up of four sub-units.
The Quality Management Support directorate has the lead role in establishing the quality management system. The objective of the QMS is to ensure that the Office can consistently provide services and products while meeting the required quality and productivity standards. In view of this, new measures to assess operational quality control have been tested in selected joint clusters. Implementation of these measures is expected in 2006 and aims at improving the examining process per se and facilitating assessment of the quality of work done.
The Practice and Procedure directorate sets the standards by which examiners work by establishing working practices embodied in guidelines and instructions. Its most important undertaking in 2005 was the preparation of the European search opinion and its implementation on 1 July. It also carried out a major revision of the Examination Guidelines and Internal Instructions. Since Greece’s ratification of the EPC 2000 in December it has started a further review of the Guidelines and Instructions.
In the course of the year, the Metrics and Standards directorate was created. This directorate defines and tests metrics for quality criteria relevant to search and examination products. By monitoring changes in incoming patent applications and any impact on product quality, it can detect any variation in the process and provide appropriate feedback. It also assesses active users’ perspectives by periodically surveying user satisfaction, and it tracks the evolution of selected metrics over time to develop understanding and support policy making.
The Learning and Development directorate continues to adapt all aspects of newcomer and further examiner training to the evolving procedures and tools in response to substantive developments and needs identified either internally or externally.
The interrelationship of these units’ activities within the new Principal Directorate, combined with operational quality control in Directorate-General Operations and feedback from search and examination activity audited by the Quality Audit directorate, means that mechanisms are now being fully co-ordinated across the Office to ensure that the quality of service and products delivered by the EPO continues to satisfy users’ expectations.
All the data received from the QMS will be used to feed back into changes in practice, procedure, learning and development, to ensure in particular that the causes of deviations from the standards, once identified, are eliminated. The newly created QMS has already contributed in a number of ways to the EPO’s activities at internal, external and international levels.
As an International Authority under the PCT, the EPO is required to report to the Meeting of International Authorities (MIA) on its quality management activities. It has submitted templates to the MIA, designed to harmonise the standard of quality reporting among the International Authorities. One unit was heavily involved in PCT work, participating in the Reform Working Group and the MIA. The main topics for discussion and decision were quality and supplementary international searches. New procedures for late filing fees for sequence listings in biotechnology applications and a revised protest procedure entered into force in April.
Preparations have also been made for the production of the written opinions for French national applications filed from July. Moreover, consultation forums have been established with professional representatives from private practice and industry under the heading of “Partnership for Quality” with a view to reaching a common understanding of how the quality of services and products in search and examination can be collectively maintained and improved.
Last November the EPO sponsored a conference on quality in the European patent system, held at its site in The Hague under the heading of “Quality Matters”. In an open dialogue between representatives from industry, patent attorneys, other patent offices and the EPO, the importance of quality as a prerequisite for an effective patent system was discussed.
With regard to all the aspects of quality there was unanimous agreement that efforts need to be made to aim for the highest standards. A debate on the future strategy of the Office and the member states’ patent offices will extend to action to ensure that quality management remains centre stage in the future.