Patent offices around the globe have undertaken efforts to increase their capacity and improve the quality of the products and services they provide to users in the global market of technology and innovation. This also means that inventors and businesses today have a greater choice when it comes to selecting where to apply for a patent and which patent office's services they use. And today's global patent system is one that has to cope with ever increasing technological complexity, which in turn requires greater levels of expert knowledge and the capacity to handle ever growing numbers of patent applications: According to WIPO's World Intellectual Property Indicators, 2.9 million patent applications were filed around the world in 2015 - a 7.8% increase over 2014 and the sixth straight year of rising demand for patent protection. At the EPO, demand for European patents has risen steadily over the last five years. As shown by the EPO's Annual Report, the Office received nearly 160 000 European patent applications in 2016, on a par with the record number reached the year before.
To secure its role as a leading patent office, the EPO therefore needs to adapt to external conditions. Working on the mandate of our 38 member states, the Office has implemented a series of far-reaching reforms over the past five years to fulfil its mission of supporting inventors and innovation in Europe. The reforms aim to build a solid basis for the EPO's future, while ensuring it remains a relevant, service-oriented organisation and leading actor in the field.
The EPO has built a solid reputation for delivering products and services that are a global benchmark for quality, and applicants also turn to the EPO because of this. One of the key objectives of the reforms has therefore been to strengthen our performance by implementing a dedicated quality and efficiency policy that aims to have patents granted in as timely a manner as possible, in order to significantly improve legal certainty in the European patent system.
A core element in enhancing the timeliness of our procedure is the new "Early Certainty" approach, which focuses on the rapid delivery of procedural results to applicants so that they take an informed decision early in the grant process about whether to continue their application at the EPO. For search, the results of the EPO's annual quality review shows that the Office has even surpassed its ambitious target for timeliness in carrying out searches on average in 5.2 months. The Office has also sped up the processing of first actions in PCT procedures.
The new initiative Early Certainty for Examination intends to reduce the time for examination, and the initiative Early Certainty from Opposition aims to lower the duration of standard opposition cases. This will be our challenge for the coming years.
We are not only delivering our products in time, but also aim to ensure European patents have the highest presumption of legal validity. The EPO's extensive quality management system is precisely that: a system, an integrated approach to quality that focusses on monitoring our processes, with regular management review of results across a range of quality criteria. It covers the entire patent grant process from search and examination to opposition, limitation and revocation, patent information and post-grant activities. And it has been fully ISO 9001 certified since 2015.
Indeed, our investment in quality is supported by the indicators regularly published in the EPO's Annual Report, which show that the vast majority of customers are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with search and examination services and patent administration services. The latest 2016 quality indicators were at the same high level as in 2015. In terms of timeliness of the patent grant procedure and customer services, these indicators also show that we were performing well in 2016.
But not only EPO-led user satisfaction surveys produced encouraging results: External surveys, such as the 2016 benchmarking study produced by the Intellectual Asset Management Magazine (IAM), once again rated the Office first among the world's largest patent offices for the quality of its patents and services.
In order to secure the continued improvement of its services and ensure reforms are on track from a customer perspective, the EPO has put in place further measures to obtain feedback from users. Thanks to our "Praktika extern" programme, which places EPO patent examiners with companies, we receive direct feedback about our services in areas such as the quality and efficiency of our procedures. More than 100 companies have expressed interest in the programme. It complements the process of consultation with users which involves regular meetings of the EPO President with user groups and associations from around the world to provide first-hand information about the Office's services, and to collect their input and feedback on improvements. In just one example of customer outreach, the EPO last year organised its first seminar outside Europe on information and communications technology patents in the US, dedicated to filing and prosecuting patent applications at the Office.
We have been undertaking these efforts to reform not only as a response to the need to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, but also in view of the growing importance of intellectual property rights in driving economic growth and employment in the knowledge economy. Today, the EPO provides strong patent protection in up to 42 countries inside and outside Europe, covering a market of over 650 million inhabitants. And as our joint study with the EU Intellectual Property Office on the impact of IP rights on the European economy shows, 42% of total economic activity in the EU (some €5.7 trillion annually) is generated by industries that make greater use of patents, trademarks, registered designs and copyrights, such as the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and transport sectors. Moreover, 38% of all employment in the EU (82 million jobs) is created in these so-called IPR-intensive industries that also account for 90% of imports and exports in the EU, generating a trade surplus of €96 billion. This makes Europe a real hub for innovation at global level.
To support this economic impetus, the EPO has therefore been getting its own house in order and has also been working to extend its concept of a quality-based patent system to the world. For example, the EPO co-operates closely within the IP5 (grouping of the patent offices of China, Japan, Korea, the US and the EPO), and this co-operation aims to align procedures and simplify them for inventors who are seeking patent protection around the world. At the same time, the IP5 offices also work to safeguard the quality of the patent system at a global level. At bilateral level, too, the EPO has close connections with its partners. With the help of the EPO, China has developed a modern patent system that has much in common with the European patent system. The EPO and China today are strategic partners in the development of a quality-based global patent system. The EPO is also regarded as a successful role model for many other countries and regions around the world, in particular also Latin America and the ASEAN.
Coupled with its reforms and commitment to providing high-quality services, the EPO is therefore helping to create the right conditions for innovation beyond Europe, ensuring it has a sustainable future as an international organisation. And more progress is envisaged in the year to come. As we look ahead, we could well see the European patent extended far beyond its immediate neighbourhood with validation in Cambodia in 2017.
2017 is set to be a momentous year for intellectual property protection in Europe with the introduction of a new patent for 26 EU member states; the Unitary Patent. Three further ratifications of the Unified Patent Court in 2016 and a renewed commitment from the UK to ratify the agreement in the first semester this year mean the Unitary Patent is now expected to enter into operation by December.
As the institution with responsibility for its administration, the EPO is already set to grant the very first unitary patent. With a single renewal fee, financial savings in comparison to a classical European Patent, administrative simplification and a centralised jurisdiction (UPC), the Unitary Patent will offer business-friendly patent protection and enhanced legal certainty to innovators everywhere.
The patent system is evolving and innovating. So is the EPO.