Innovative businesses need comprehensive analysis of their market if they are to succeed. For their patent strategy they need accurate predictions as to the strength of their applications, and what problems they might need to overcome. Many rely upon the EPO's search report, with a written opinion on patentability, as the basis for vital business decisions or even to attract investment. Certainty, at the earliest stage possible, inspires confidence and is what users deserve and expect.
The EPO has a variety of channels to applicants and users, ranging from the institutional level (e.g. key industry bodies represented on the Administrative Council and SACEPO), right down to direct personal contacts through feedback forms, e-mails, helplines and our Key Account Managers. Additionally we proactively seek feedback through a survey of over 2000 applicants and attorneys worldwide conducted by telephone interview. These interviews focus on one third of all technical areas each year, and for 2015 users reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with our search services in 81% of cases, and 75% of the time with respect to examination.
The EPO's quality management system (QMS) is now ISO 9001 certified for the entire patent granting process, "end-to-end" from filing to publication and grant, opposition, limitation or revocation, as well as for our patent information services as well. This has never been just about quality control. By embedding systems that ensure attention to detail and an avoidance of errors, we not only improved quality but also productivity. Mistakes cost time to correct - much more time than avoiding them in the first place. So higher quality for the EPO has not come at a higher cost, but rather has led to efficiency savings too. Users have benefitted as well, with quality compliance found to be 98.6% for searches and 98.7% for examinations (easily exceeding targets of 95%).
By gradually increasing the proportion of staff engaged in "core" search and examination work, and by increasing the focus of examiners on these core tasks, production has increased. The quantum leap in production by 14% in 2015 was a major achievement. This was due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was the implementation of a new performance-based career system (replacing a career system wherein advancement was based on seniority).
Another key factor driving performance has been the continuing implementation of "Early Certainty from Search" - which re-balances examiner resources to deliver more searches, including written opinions on patentability. Timeliness here has been much appreciated, with most searches (89%) now being issued within the six month target, and by the summer of 2016 it is expected that all searches will be issued on time. The impetus for this initiative came directly from applicants who told the EPO that they value our high quality searches, and getting these in a timely fashion was their top priority.
The EPO's free PACE programme allows users to accelerate the processing of their application (search and/or examination). Not all applicants want or need their patents processed so rapidly, but for those with an urgent business need, the EPO is able to prioritise cases of special importance according to available capacity in the relevant examining division. In response to users' feedback during 2015, the operation of the programme was refined with effect from the start of 2016.
The EPO has resolutely kept its own costs under control despite rising demand (e.g. applications up ca 12% over the least 5 years). Additions to the coverage of our databases and investments in state-of-the-art IT systems will pay for themselves in terms of the performance gains mentioned above. But all of this has been achieved at little or no cost to users - fees were not increased in 2015, and the biennial fee increase set for April 2016 will be limited to just 1%, with no increase whatsoever in fees for international searches and international preliminary examination reports, which are our most demanded services. The European patent will soon become even better value with the introduction of unitary protection in thirteen or more states for a level of renewal fees equal to the current rate for just four states.
The unitary patent is one part of a global trend towards harmonisation and simplification of the patent system. Patent offices around the world must remain responsive and relevant to the needs of applicants. Our users have been the driving force behind numerous recent developments at the EPO, and will continue to be vital partners in our future.