International Patent Forum 2012, 18th April 2012, London, United Kingdom
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Ladies and gentlemen,
It is always a pleasure to come to London and have the opportunity for a direct exchange with the users community.
I would like to warmly thank the organisers of the International Patent Forum 2012 for inviting me to speak at this event, and to share a few thoughts with you on the state of the European patent system.
The first point in today's programme is worded as a question - "European patent reform - breakthrough in 2012?". The time has surely come to replace that question mark with a full stop, or even an exclamation mark. With much of the groundwork done for the introduction of the EU or unitary patent, the "breakthrough" ought now to be possible.
Never before in the history of the European patent system have we been so close to creating a truly supranational protection scheme. A succession of EU Council Presidencies have put their diplomatic weight behind this project.
But, as so often, the last stage is the most demanding part of the process, requiring enormous efforts from all involved. And, at present, it is still by no means certain that those efforts will meet with success.
However, before looking more closely at the prospects for the future, I would also like to use this rare opportunity to address you and to inform you briefly about EPO´s current position.
First, I must emphasise that despite the ongoing economic and financial crisis Europe is experiencing, 2011 has been a very positive year in term of filings, even representing our peak year.
Indeed, we received almost 245 000 patent applications, nearly 4% more than in 2010.
62% of our users are non European, with US (25%), Japan (19%), Germany (14%) and China (7%) ranking the top 5 positions. SIEMENS is our top applicant for the second time in a row.
That growth in the number of filings with the EPO is part of a consistent, long-term trend, documenting the confidence of industry - worldwide, as well as within Europe - in the value of European patents.
Our users are consciously choosing the European route to protect their inventions, showing us every day that they trust the European system put in place with the signing, nearly forty years ago, of the European Patent Convention.
Over the years, the EPO has done its best to earn that trust, and to ensure that it continues to be deserved. As a financially independent organisation, our very existence relies on the confidence of our users in the services we offer.
And in few words, the expectations of the users concerning a patent office are quite simple: to provide legally solid patents and to give an easy access to comprehensive patent information.
Let me now give you a brief update of the internal work we have engaged to better fulfil our missions.
You may remember that when I took over the presidency of the EPO in July 2010, I immediately instituted a general review of the Office's activities, in order to establish a clear strategic direction for the future. From this exercise, a set of so-called roadmaps emerged which point the way forward in five areas: quality, information technology, human resources, accommodation and co-operation. These roadmaps are now being implemented.
It consists in concrete projects with clear timetable, aiming at reaching our 3 top priorities: improving our efficiency, enhancing our quality, controlling our costs.
I would like to give now a particular focus on two of these roadmap areas - quality and IT, which are, I think, of particular interest for you as they will impact the future of the European patent system.
Turning first to quality, we are keenly aware that high quality standards are crucial to long-term success. The EPO has committed itself to the implementation of ISO 9001, the international quality standard for organisations and companies. But this represents a basic requirement and an Office like us must go further.
This is why we have established a comprehensive Quality Management System to verify that we are managing our processes effectively and that we are fully in control of our activities. The system covers all our core processes, including classification work, search and examination, opposition, revocation and limitation, as well as support activities, such as training.
On this basis, we are optimising our internal processes, but at the same time we are also working to improve our relations with users, whose cooperation is essential to enhance the quality of incoming patent applications, before examination begins.
The EPO's quality management supports a "get it right first time" approach. This also makes economic sense: overlooked errors in applications can lead to significant costs for industry, the public and the EPO itself.
There is no room for complacency here: the process of optimisation is continuing, and further improvements will always be needed. But I think it is undeniable that, in terms of examination quality and the soundness of the patents we grant, the EPO has gone a long way towards achieving its aim of becoming a "better" patent office.
European patents are recognised across the world for their quality and the legal certainty they provide. This excellent reputation was confirmed last year by two external user studies. We will put all our energy to continue to deserve this confidence in our products and services.
Quality alone is, of course, not enough. It has to be complemented by efficiency. With both these aspects in mind, the EPO has invested heavily in IT infrastructure, especially to assist its staff of - currently - over 4 000 examiners in the performance of their task.
I do not propose to take up your time with a recital of everything the EPO has recently achieved in this area. But, by way of example, I think it is worth mentioning one or two recent initiatives that are already bearing fruit or are on the point of doing so.
The Office has embarked on a major programme of improvements in three IT-related areas: Search Tools, Patent Grant Process and Patent Information Dissemination.
Regarding search tools, a range of measures have been taken to enhance examiner efficiency by automating aspects of the search process.
At the same time, the Office has begun to carry out a re-engineering of the patent grant process which will greatly simplify the future flow of applications and related documents between applicants and examiners.
I can also inform you we have just signed a contract with the UK-based company Logica for a modern automation platform, known as a case management system, which will progressively implement this newly designed workflow.
A further, landmark, project in patent information dissemination reached completion in February of this year, when the EPO launched its new machine translation service, called Patent Translate, built on a partnership with Google signed one year ago.
This service, already freely accessible on our website Espacenet, facilitates translation from and into English for French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Swedish. A next batch of languages, including Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian and Norwegian, will be uploaded in 2013. Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Russian are to follow soon after.
The creation of this quality machine translation tool is a particularly exciting development, establishing the EPO as the technical world leader in a field of tremendous significance for the future.
Among other things, the availability of free translation should help to facilitate the introduction of the unitary patent, which was for many years blocked by the language issue.
Looking further at electronic tools, a particular highlight last year was the launch of the Common Citation Document (CCD), which has been widely welcomed by patent offices and users.
The CCD is a free-of-charge patent information service developed by the EPO with the support of its Trilateral partners - the USPTO and the Japan Patent Office - to provide single point access to citation data. It consolidates the prior art cited by the participating offices for the family members of a patent application, so that the search results for the same invention from several offices can be displayed on a single page.
This fills an important gap in the information services for the public and patent offices, and, in terms of its wider potential significance, has been heralded as a step on the way towards the ultimate aim of global patent harmonisation.
Finally, I would like to mention that on 1 January 2013, the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) will be launched at the EPO and the USPTO. From that date, the EPO and the US Office will be jointly allocating classification symbols on all publications. This is a bilateral project between the EPO and USPTO, but it is envisaged that the Japanese Office will eventually join in.
The new classification is based on the EPO's ECLA scheme, but has more subdivisions. The CPC opens the way for the emergence of a new de facto world standard in classification, with ECLA as its starting point.
As you can see with those few examples, the EPO has been particularly busy in developing new projects aiming at better serving the European economy and I am confident that the coming years will bring more.
Let me come now to the point of the Unitary Patent and the European Patent Court.
From the point of view of quality and efficiency, the European patent system is in pretty good health. But of course it does not mean at all that Europe can adopt a static position and rest on its laurels while other regions are moving.
For its part, the European Patent Office is continually innovating, extending and optimising its activities and processes, gearing itself up to tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century. I have already given to you few examples.
It is also in recognition of these achievements that the European Commission and 25 EU Member States designated the EPO as the future patent office for granting and administering unitary patents.
The planned unitary patent system builds on the already well-known strengths of the existing system, including the European Patent Convention as the basis for the grant of the new patent. The criteria and the rules for examining patentability, and the procedure before the EPO, are the same for both types of patent.
The main difference, of course, lies in the post-grant procedure, which under the existing European system is handled by the national patent offices of our thirty-eight member states.
Administering the unitary patent will be an additional task for the EPO, which is to act as a one-stop shop for patentees under the new scheme. Everything, from filing the application to paying renewal fees and keeping a register of unitary patents, will now be managed centrally.
For users of the system, this would mean a cost saving and a major reduction of administrative burdens. A first internal assessment leads to the conclusion that up to 70% of the costs could be saved compared to the ones engaged for the same geographical protection nowadays.
Although the EPO is not at the negotiating table for the unitary patent, we have always been supportive of its introduction. Thanks to the efforts of my predecessors, in particular of EPO President Alain Pompidou, the London Agreement entered into force almost exactly four years ago, which certainly helped to pave the way to the trilingual regime for the unitary patent.
In recent months, the position regarding the introduction of the unitary patent has shifted. The Polish EU Presidency, in the second half of 2011, invested a great deal of energy in the proposed regulation on unitary patent protection, the translation arrangements, and the court system for patent litigation.
However, owing to the lack of agreement among member states on the location of the central patent court, the signing ceremony for the unitary patent system, scheduled for December 2011 in Warsaw, was cancelled.
Being a French President of a European Organisation based in Münich and addressing a qualified audience in London, you will easily understand that I will stay silent on this issue.
But I would like to give a warning anyway: whatever will be the decision on the location of the Court, please take it quickly. A great deal of energy has been engaged to obtain the current result which is positive or at least acceptable for a lot of us. Of course, it is always possible to improve but the better is the enemy of the good.
Earlier this year, the European Parliament already postponed its First Reading and the vote on the creation of the new system to an "indefinite time" in the future. Substantive misgivings are still being voiced in some quarters about the European Patent Court and the litigation arrangements, which are a fundamental element of the proposed system.
In my opinion, it is a mistake to believe that a general agreement is now reached and we can afford endless discussion on the last remaining issues.
Regarding the US Patent reform, I have heard sometimes some concerns about the way it intends to implement the first-to-file principle but everybody recognizes it is a good step in the right direction. Let's do Europe that step forward.
Finally, it must also be kept in mind that the Unitary Patent will simply represent another option at the hands of the users of the European Patent System. It will not replace the European Patent.
Ladies and gentlemen,
At this time last year, it seemed as if the long-awaited "breakthrough" could be just around the corner. Now, however, the way to the unitary patent may, in the worst case, become blocked once more.
The momentum built up in 2011 has to be sustained. That, however, is a largely political matter, which the European Patent Office has little power to influence.
We have made our contribution, in building up the European patent system to the point where the introduction of the unitary patent would be technically possible; and we shall persist in those efforts.
My personal conviction is that we must move forward to the completion of the European patent system, with a unitary patent and a centralised, specialised patent court.
This, in my view, is an economic imperative. With Europe's fragmented market in innovation and IP, we are at risk of losing out to the world's other superpowers. It is time that we set aside our differences. We must focus on our needs as Europeans, and re-shape the European patent system accordingly.
On that note, I would like to conclude my introductory remarks. As I said at the outset, the question mark hanging over the "breakthrough" in European patent reform could become superfluous.
My hope is that the panel discussion this morning will shed some light on the current position regarding reform and the issues that remain to be resolved.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind attention.