In times of economic instability, there are certain parallels between technical innovations and refuge currencies: both provide businesses and investors with a safe haven from the stormy seas. So much is clear from previous experience of recessionary trends - an economic downturn puts a short-term dent in growth in patent applications, only for filing figures to surge upwards all the more soon after. The most obvious recent example dates from the nineties, when the worldwide recession triggered off a near explosion in growth which even the bursting of the dot-com bubble failed to check.
It is now also clear that the consequences of the unforeseen success of patents are not all positive, as is evident from frequently critical public reactions to issues such as the growing mounds of unprocessed applications. Accordingly, the European Patent Office (EPO) last year intensified its efforts to make the patent system more effective both in Europe and internationally, with special emphasis on enhancing procedural efficiency.
A systematic analysis of applications filed in the European system and under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) shows that one of the keys to coping with the workload is closer co-operation between the patent offices of the world. Acting alone, the offices are clearly unequal to the task, so one of the priorities must be to find appropriate means of reducing or indeed eliminating work duplication both at European level and in international filing procedures under the PCT.
While our Organisation's member states see advantages in national search results being used on a voluntary basis by other members and the EPO, what is now being debated at international level is systematic close technical co-operation between the EPO and the patent offices of China, Japan, Korea and the USA. At their pioneering meeting in Korea last October, the "Five IP Offices" agreed on ten foundation projects devised to reduce unnecessary duplication of work, expand examining capacity and enhance the quality of examination procedures, and thereby to reinforce the stability of patent rights in the international system.
These projects are intended among other things to optimise the deployment of resources in documentation, classification, search and substantive examination. They thus also create essential practical conditions for expanding the PCT system. Successful reinforcement of this global co-operation is therefore a high priority with a view to ensuring that the patent system functions as it should.
In the EPO's view, the second key element in this stabilisation process is the ongoing review and improvement of the European procedure. The EPO is devoting particular attention to further enhancing patent quality, which is also dependent on the quality of the applications that are filed. Suitable rules governing divisional applications are being discussed, as are appropriate internal means of permanently raising the bar in terms of the quality of grant proceedings (see the following pages). A final issue in the same context concerns the influence that can be exerted through the EPO's fee structure and hence the best approach to financing the European patent system in order to guarantee its stability in the long term as well.