In the year under review, the number of European patent applications filed again rose substantially. There were 208 500 European filings in 2006, 5.6% up on the revised final 2005 total of 197 400. The total number of filings is made up of applications filed directly with the EPO, with the national patent offices of the contracting states to the European Patent Convention (EPC) and with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Of the 2006 total, 41% came from the contracting states, 28% from the USA, 18% from Japan and 13% from other countries.
Filings growth was not as strong on the direct European filing path as on the international route under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The number of direct European filings rose to 61 000 (2005: 60 780), while 147 500 European patent applications were filed via the PCT route (2005: 136 600).
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 18 300 such European first filings (2005: 16 900), equivalent to 9% of the total number of European patent applications filed. Fig. 1
More and more European patent applications are being filed online. Last year, 32.4% of direct European filings came via the internet, compared to 23.4% the year before. PCT applications filed online at the EPO rose to 50% in autumn 2006.
In 2006, 174 600 search requests were submitted to the EPO, 3.8% more than the previous year (2005: 168 200). Around 85 000 of them related to European patent applications (2005: 87 000), while 71 500 concerned international applications (2005: 65 100) and 18 000 came from contracting states' national patent offices and from third parties (2005: 16 100).
The Office completed 163 600 searches, about the same as the year before (2005: 163 100). Of these, 75 700 were searches on European patent applications (2005: 74 100), 69 600 were performed by the Office in its capacity as a PCT international searching authority (2005: 69 700), and 18 300 concerned national patent applications from the contracting states and other countries (2005: 19 300). Fig. 2
The number of outstanding searches rose again: at the end of the year, 135 800 searches were pending, 11% more than the previous year (2005: 121 900).
Last year, applicants made more use of the option of requesting accelerated search and examination (PACE). The Office received 4 480 requests for accelerated search (2005: 4 210). Thus PACE was requested for 5.3% of European searches.
The Office continued with its efforts to keep pendency times within acceptable bounds. In 50% of cases, the search was completed after less than 6.6 months (2005: 6.4 months).
Last year the number of requests for examination filed with the EPO increased by 3.1% to 105 500 (2005: 102 300), whereas demands for international preliminary examination under the PCT continued to decline, falling by 17% to 11 500. The Office carried out 14 500 examinations on PCT demands, 19% fewer than the previous year (2005: 18 000), and completed 83 100 substantive examinations on European patent applications, against 84 100 the year before.
Along with 61 000 direct European filings, 74 200 Euro-PCT applications entered the European phase, 9.1% more than in 2005. Hence in the course of the year, European patent grant proceedings were instituted for 135 200 applications (2005: 128 800). 56% fell into ten fields, the most popular being medical science (IPC class A61; 11.7% of all applications) and electrical communication technique (H04; 10.0%). Fig. 3
Of these applications, 48.5% came from the 31 contracting states, 25.7% from the USA, 16.4% from Japan and 9.4% from other countries. The top three filers with the EPO in 2006 were Philips, Samsung and Siemens. Fig. 4
About 112 300 procedures were concluded last year (2005: 101 200). 17 % of the applications concerned were abandoned by the applicant after the search phase, while 27 % were withdrawn by the applicant or rejected by the Office during the examination phase. 56% of cases ended with a European patent being granted.
In 2006 the EPO granted 62 780 patents, compared with 53 300 in 2005. Thus since its foundation it has granted 823 500 European patents, equivalent to 6.9 million national patents. Last year 27.5% of grants were completed within three years of the filing of the European patent application (2005: 25.3%). The average time taken to grant a patent was 44.3 months, again less than the year before (2005: 45.3 months). Under the PACE scheme, the Office received 7 070 requests for accelerated examination (2005: 6 670), which constitutes 6.7% of all substantive examinations requested. Fig. 5 Fig. 6
Despite faster processing, the number of pending European examination procedures rose significantly to 304 100 (2005: 285 400). 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.
In the course of the year, oppositions were filed against 2 990 patents (2005: 2 960), the opposition rate remaining unchanged at 5.4%. Some 2 640 opposition cases were settled (2005: 2 350). Fig. 7
In 2006, the Quality Management unit was heavily involved in preparations for implementing the revised EPC (EPC 2000), with particular emphasis on amendment of the search and examination guidelines and on chairing the Office-wide group co ordinating EPC 2000 implementation. This group considered the changes, their operational impact, and the integration of changes into the formal procedures, as well as into the Office's computer systems. Furthermore, preparations were made for the training of examiners in the changes introduced by the EPC 2000. Important work started both on improving training effectiveness assessment and on introducing a new procedure for communicating changes in search and examination practice to examining staff.
Much progress was made on the design and implementation of a quality management system in the EPO. The scope and definition of additional operational quality control measures in the search and examination area were finalised, and these are scheduled for implementation in the course of 2007. They will enable corrective actions to be triggered in certain clusters or across the Office as needs are identified, and will also include facilities for monitoring and assessing their effectiveness.
Presentations have now been given to all examining staff on operational quality control, with emphasis on the ways in which it supports delivery of quality products and services.
A series of user satisfaction surveys was completed in 2006. All the 14 joint cluster units have now been covered. In 2007, the surveys will be extended to include the new products, covering search plus written opinion.
The quality metrics development programme continues, with initial focus on monitoring and reporting on EPC 2000 implementation and developments in the characteristics of incoming applications, especially those with potential significance for quality.
A series of meetings has been arranged to exchange information and views on patent quality matters with the professional
bodies representing patent attorneys and industry. These meetings have already proved valuable and are due to be continued in future years.