Building a future on the past

European patent system on a course that gave it a significance extending far beyond Europe's borders. Based on the European Patent Convention (EPC), the new system was initially greeted with scepticism by users and the public alike, but it soon proved a successful model of international patent co-op eration. EPO co-operation projects with other regions, especially its trilateral ventures with Japan and the USA, cleared the way for a worldwide patent system which became a partial reality when the World Trade Organ ization's Agreement on traderelated aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) came into force in 1995, even if there is still no sign of its key institutional element, a world patent office. The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) has to some extent filled the gap by allowing patent applications to be filed with near-global effect, thanks to the EPO's work at the heart of the system.

In 2007, the EPO took its 30-year jubilee as an opportunity both to review its past and to look to the future. The European patent system's achievements are undeniable, but it needs to be refocused to embrace the parameters of a globalised economy. The EPO Scenarios for the Future study points the way forward: the patent system is inextricably linked to social, economic, technological and global political trends. Every change in these conditions is also felt in the world of patents, and the system needs to respond rapidly to new challenges if it is to retain its relevance and legitimacy. Issues that need to be addressed in this context include the never-ending flood of filings with the major patent offices, debate about the substantive and legal boundaries of patent protection, the controversy surrounding unrestricted access to medical supplies in developing countries and the rise of alternatives to industrial property rights, such as knowledge commons and the open-source approach. Within the European patent system, too, these trends are having an impact, and action must be taken to correct the course pursued to date. The revised EPC (EPC 2000) which came into force on 13 December 2007 has given the European Patent Organisation a legal framework which guarantees the necessary stability combined with flexibility. The completion of ratification proceedings for the London Agreement, allowing it to come into force on 1 May 2008, is a further sign that the system is changing for the better: the Agreement clears the way for a substantial reduction in translation costs for European patents.

Another significant factor is the optimisation of the EPO's strategic co-operation with the patent offices of the EPC contracting states within the European Patent Network (EPN), primarily with a view to creating a European quality standard and efficiently measuring and mastering the workload. This initiative is underpinned by a largescale strategic renewal programme at the EPO, aimed at making it fit for the future. This realignment process will take a critical look at such different issues as the continued efficacy and quality of the European procedure, the form of the patent examiner's workplace, the Office's relations with its environment and the EPO's financial health. The aim is to foster a process of change which allows the Office to build on the history of its success under the altered conditions of a globalised economy with all its demands and challenges and make a success of the future as well.


Alison Brimelow

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