If further proof were needed that the patent system now plays far more than a marginal role in 21st century society, 2009 was a year which provided a wealth of evidence. The ultimately unsuccessful sale of General Motors subsidiary Opel threw a spotlight on patents' impact on corporate market valuation; the European Commission's inquiry into competition in the pharmaceutical sector highlighted aspects such as the right balance between the patenting of new treatments and the need for affordable medicines; and ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference there was much talk about patents as a potential obstacle to innovation. While there may have been no reference to intellectual property rights in the final Copenhagen Accord, the lively debate over measures such as compulsory licensing certainly put the patent system firmly on the international political agenda.
These are issues that the European Patent Office (EPO) was addressing long before 2009. Back in 2007 it published its "Scenarios for the Future", a highly regarded study on the development of general framework conditions for intellectual property protection.
Not long after, it launched its "Raising the Bar" initiative, which would have been inconceivable in its present form without the Scenarios study. It was clear that significant adjustments were needed in the grant procedure to keep the patent system fit for purpose in the long term. A set of changes applicable from 1 April this year is aimed at enhancing the quality of incoming applications, improving the co-ordination between search and substantive examination and tightening up major time limits, especially those for filing divisional applications. The EPO and a large group of national patent offices in Europe are also investigating options for utilising each other's work.
Success on these fronts will pave the way for further projects affecting the patent system in its global dimension as well, above all the IP 5 initiative, which seeks to reduce unnecessary duplication in the work of the world's five largest patent offices and ensure patent quality.
Last year, at the initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), the EPO took part in a study on the role of intellectual property rights in the development and transfer of clean energy technologies. The aim is to identify the available technologies and those who own them, as well as the influence of political considerations on readiness to invest in clean energy and the extent to which patent proprietors are prepared to grant third-party rights to such technologies, especially in emerging and developing countries. These are just some of the issues the study is examining, partly by means of surveys among key players in the green energy sector.
The three partner organisations will be presenting their findings to the public in early June, hoping to put debate on a more objective footing and supply a body of empirical fact as a basis for political decision-making. The associated development of an alternative classification scheme for patent documents relating to clean energy, far from being a mere by-product of the study, will in future enable the EPO to provide access to structured data for an entire sector of industry. The aim is then to extend this new quality of patent information to other socially relevant fields - evidence of the patent system's resolve to make its own particular contribution to the major issues of our time.