Raising the bar on patent quality

As a motor for innovation, patents play a direct and positive role in Europe's economy. The very purpose of patents is to support and protect inventors and to foster technological creativity and innovation. In turn, innovation encourages economic growth by triggering higher productivity and higher wages. Inventors and consumers alike depend on high-quality patents: without protection for intellectual property, technological innovation would quickly be curtailed as investment in research and development dried up.

Patents are a pillar of the intellectual property system. With this in mind, the EPO continues to drive the quality of search and examination to produce quality patents. Quality has always been at the heart of what the EPO does. Patents are premium products, and the Office's track record shows that it has always strived to ensure a high degree of compliance with EPC standards. Moreover, in 2007, faced with public perception that the barrier to patenting is too low, the EPO initiated a process of strategic renewal.

Since its inception in 1977, the EPO has taken quality management seriously. Patent examiners receive intensive specialised training; practices and procedures in the examination process are well-defined, well documented and closely monitored; and the Office ensures transparent and fair opposition and appeal proceedings. These achievements have established the EPO as a benchmark for patent offices around the world.

However, social, economic, technological and political trends on a global scale - including patent trolling, the growing number of patent applications and the deterioration in their quality, especially in terms of clarity and conciseness - affect how the Office operates with respect to quality management.

Challenges for the EPO

In the context of an increasingly globalised economy, one of the most critical challenges of the moment is the accumulation of backlogs in the patent system. In addition, the Office is receiving fewer patent applications drafted in accordance with the EPC standard, which makes the applications substantially more difficult for examiners to process and quality patents more difficult to achieve.

Another challenge examiners face is classification. The volume of technical literature is increasing rapidly, and whereas patent applications used to be focused on one main technical field, over time technological fields have converged, as is the case with computers and mobile phones, for example. Dealing with the volume of material, and reorganising patent and non-patent literature in a manner that promotes efficient and complete searching, is increasingly difficult. Misclassified documents cause inefficiencies for all parties involved.

External challenges require co-operative solutions

Over the past few years, the EPO has taken a more systematic approach to quality by implementing new checks and mechanisms to define and implement corrective action. In 2007, work continued on building a quality management system based on the ISO 9001 standard. To continuously monitor performance in this area, a quality indicator was added to the Balanced Score Card. Other measures taken to assess quality at the Office include a gap analysis which determined what action was needed to make search and examination activities fully ISO-compliant; systematic and random quality control of search and examination activities; and the Partnership for Quality - an umbrella term for various fora, each of which promotes dialogue between the Office and various groups of users. In addition, the Office engages users in regular reviews via a User Satisfaction Survey, which also plays a part in shaping the content of in-house examiner training programmes.

Ensuring quality in the patenting process is clearly a two-way street, and users of the system must play their part. In this context, the quality of incoming applications is of utmost importance, and the EPO relies on its users to file clear, well-drafted applications that conform to the standards of the EPC to ensure that searches are complete, examinations thorough and granted patents have a high presumption of validity. Quality starts at the moment an application is drafted, not just when it reaches the patent office. If applications are drafted correctly and a genuine attempt has been made to fulfil the requirements of the Convention, everyone benefits.

In addition to internal measures and the improvement of relations with the applicants, international co-operation is key to resolving some of the challenges that have arisen. Across Europe and the rest of the world, national patent offices face the same challenges and have recognised the vital role of quality in the global patent system. This year, the EPO is in the driving seat for changes in trilateral co-operation with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). At their last meeting, these players indicated that they were ready to discuss ways to address quality issues for global benefit. In Europe, patent offices are working together on standards for quality.

Looking ahead

Important decisions concerning patent quality lie ahead. The volume of work to be done is so great that no one player, no matter how big, can do it alone. Delivering high-quality work is often perceived as being a task that is both time and cost-intensive, but with the co-operation of patent applicants and examiners and the committed support of management, the quality of the Office's products and procedures will improve in the years to come.

The EPO's core competence has a worldwide reputation for delivering quality work, and the Office remains dedicated to maintaining that reputation.

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