In the course of the year the European Patent Organisation gained two new member states, with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia joining in January and San Marino in July. Thus at the end of 2009 it had 36 member states, with Albania due to join in 2010. In addition, under an extension agreement with Montenegro signed on 13 February 2009 and in force since 1 March 2010, European patents are now valid there too.
In 2009 a major step was taken towards the introduction of work-sharing on a permanent basis, in the form of a decision amending the EPC implementing regulations to require applicants to provide the EPO with search results from national patent offices within the European Patent Network. Scheduled to enter into force on 1 January 2011, the decision will allow electronic document exchange systems to be set up between the EPO and interested national patent offices under Article 130 EPC, thereby alleviating the burden on patent applicants.
At the EU Competitiveness Council meeting in December, ministers reached political agreement on a number of key elements of the future Community patent, which following the Lisbon Treaty's entry into force is now referred to as the EU patent. The EU Council agreed on a general approach to a draft regulation on the EU patent, and political agreement was reached on the main features of the envisaged unified patent litigation system, on principles for EU patent renewal fees and their distribution, and on a system of enhanced partnership between the EPO and central IP offices. These conclusions are conditional on an opinion from the European Court of Justice which is expected no earlier than the summer of 2010.
The main outstanding issues are the translation arrangements and the necessary EPC revision. The EU Council's conclusions propose that the translation arrangements should be dealt with in a separate regulation, and the Commission will now have to draw up a proposal for this regulation for discussion and adoption by the EU Council.
In line with the EU's neighbourhood policy, Moldova and Morocco have investigated opportunities for recognising the validity of European patents on their territory, and the EPO has extended its support for the policy by implementing capacity-building programmes to strengthen the patent systems and patent offices of the European neighbourhood.
The EPO is continuing to implement ECfunded projects in support of the EU's enlargement policy with a view to strengthening the industrial property system in candidate and potential candidate countries and building capacity at their IPR authorities. Two new projects were launched in 2009, a regional scheme addressing general technical assistance needs for IP in the entire Western Balkan region and Turkey and a national one supporting the creation of an Education and Information Centre at the IP Office in Serbia.
The EU-China Project on the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR 2) continued to provide technical assistance with a view to improving the effectiveness of IPR enforcement in China and supporting IP dialogue between the EU and China. In a mid-term evaluation report the European Commission, the Chinese authorities and European industry expressed their satisfaction with the project's achievements, especially in relation to the draft revision of China's patent law and to IP protection awareness work at trade fairs.
September saw the launch of an EC-funded co-operation project with Russia, aimed at facilitating trade and supporting closer economic relations between Russia and the EU by harmonising aspects of the respective patent systems.
Negotiations with the EU delegation to Thailand led to the signing of a financing agreement for implementing the Project on the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights (ECAP III) for ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which aims to strengthen institutional capacities, harmonise IPR in the region, enhance IPR enforcement and provide support for ASEAN IP institution building.
The world's five largest IP offices (the EPO plus the patent offices of Japan (JPO), South Korea (KIPO), China (SIPO) and the USA (USPTO)) are involved in a joint initiative on changes to the global patent system. A meeting of their deputy heads in Geneva in September reached agreement on an overall governance structure for their work, including the launch of three working groups to run the ten Foundation Projects, and approved the mandates for these projects, including Common Documentation and Common Hybrid Classification, where the EPO is taking the lead.
While the long-term outlook for trilateral co-operation has to be seen in relation to the Five IP Offices, the structures will continue to co-exist, at least in the short term. With this in mind, in September the EPO and the USPTO agreed to extend their bilateral Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) pilot programme for an additional twelve months.
At the Trilateral Conference in November the EPO and the JPO finalised preparations for launching a similar PPH pilot in early 2010, and all three offices agreed to allow PPH requests on the basis of PCT international- phase work. The PPH gives applicants the option of obtaining patent protection more efficiently and faster in the country of the office of second filing when the office of first filing has already found the claimed subject-matter to be allowable/patentable.
In 2009 the Office placed the focus of its co-operation project with China on improved access to Chinese prior art, harmonised procedures, quality management, planning and patent search tools. Together with a number of national patent offices it arranged seminars and workshops in Europe to present the revised Chinese patent law to European attorneys and industry, and it organised seminars in China to raise awareness of the European patent system there.
The Office also continued to provide technical support to the ASEAN countries in coordination with other IP technical assistance providers in the region such as the USPTO and the Australian Patent Office (IP Australia), while in Latin America it maintained its support for the development of a regional IP structure, working together with the Spanish Patent Office and WIPO.