The concept of establishing a "good and just" patent system in Europe was at the heart of the creation of the EPO from the beginning. Built on an elaborate multistep procedure and enshrining the highest legal standards in the European Patent Convention, the new patent system was set up with the explicit aim of strengthening Europe's innovation. Although devised in the 1970s, the system already had all the ingredients to make it a role model for patent quality today. The success of this approach speaks for itself: demand for the EPO's services is rising steadily with 274 000 patent filings in 2014, and 40% of world-wide international searches and half of all international preliminary examinations under the PCT being performed by the EPO.
The EPO today enjoys an excellent reputation among IP specialists across the globe for the quality of its products and services. A highly trained examiner workforce of well over 4 000 engineers and scientists search and examine applications using state-of-the-art tools and efficient processes to deliver high quality patents that stand out for their legal certainty, and which provide a reliable basis for decisions of inventors and technology investors around the world.
The growing demand for patents confronts the EPO with particular procedural and administrative challenges: around 750 000 live files are in the pipeline at any one time - leading to 5 million interactions each year, including queries, search and examination, file and status updates, fees and administration, application follow-ups, and various reminders. The EPO makes every effort to handle its workload with ever greater quality, efficiency, timeliness and consistency through the introduction of modern electronic communication processes and tools and a strong focus on improving internal processes.
In 2014, the EPO's Quality Management System of the patent granting process was certified according to the international quality standard ISO 9001. New control systems have been put in place to improve identification, correction and management of non-conforming products to ensure continuous improvement of product quality and processes. These processes are backed by a set of key performance indicators encompassing results of user surveys, internal audits and operational quality controls to monitor progress and set the right priorities.
"We know we produce good quality, but we cannot be complacent. ISO 9001 certification is recognition of the Quality Management System we have in place - and will now be regularly audited," says Jörg Machek, Director Quality Analysis & Policy at the EPO.
Furthermore, the EPO introduced a new internal priority scheme in 2014 known as ‘Early Certainty from Search' to eliminate delays. Under the scheme, the EPO aims to issue all search reports and written opinions on patentability within six months of filing; it also strives to ensure that fast-track examination is completed by the promised date. The new scheme benefits companies and inventors seeking patent protection in Europe by giving them a sound basis for their patenting strategies at a very early stage in the patent granting process. It also benefits the general public by enhancing the transparency of pending patent rights in Europe, providing an overview of prior art and patentability early on in the proceedings.
Of course, the quality of a patent also depends on access to the most relevant documentation so that the most pertinent prior art can be retrieved, assessed and cited. The Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), jointly developed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and based on the EPO's in-house classification standards, provides an effective classification system for efficient document retrieval. Its growing popularity with many patent offices around the world, including China's State Intellectual Property Office, shows that CPC is the future global standard in terms of classification.
The volume and importance of prior art originating from Asia - in particular from Japan, Korea and China - is rapidly increasing. The EPO's prior art database Espacenet comprises more than 90 million patent documents and examiners also access other major complementary data sources where needed resulting in the EPO citing a wider range of relevant documentation than any other office, with 20% coming from Asian sources. With the help of progress in translation tools such as Patent Translate, language barriers have been significantly reduced. The Patent Translate service delivers on-the-fly machine translation from and into 32 languages, namely all 28 languages of the EPO member states, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. It is requested up to 20 000 times a day by users and patent offices all over the world.
"Quality is a central goal for all at the EPO - and to deliver, we need the best people with the best tools, and an organisational culture of quality and service-mindedness," says Karin Seegert, Principal Director Polymers & Industrial Chemistry at the EPO.
Our dedicated quality policy also extends to our most important resource: our workforce. The EPO maintains rigorous recruitment standards to ensure that staff members match the high demands of the job. EPO patent examiners therefore have excellent qualifications in science or engineering, with many having PhDs. Targeted recruitment campaigns help the EPO to address its staffing needs in rapidly evolving areas of technology and to secure its technical competence and capacity in these fields in the long run.
Another development is the rising number of patent applications being filed in parallel at the world's five largest patent offices: the EPO plus China, Japan, South Korea and the US. Enhancing patent quality is thus a strategic objective of our partnership with these offices. The EPO's approach and expertise in terms of practices and procedures are in high demand. Instruments such as the Cooperative Patent Classification, and tools such as the specialised EPOQUE search engine, are used by a multitude of patent offices around the globe. The EPO has the lead in many of these projects at bilateral and multilateral level, transforming its approach to patent quality into a form of European soft power, reflecting the aims of the founding fathers of the EPO also at international level.