In its relentless pursuit of high quality, the EPO was proud to achieve further improvements in 2017. Last June, the EPO’s advisory body, SACEPO, established a sub-group devoted exclusively to quality at the EPO. A month later, the EPO published its first ever Quality Report, providing users with total transparency as to how we measure quality, what our users think about our quality and what improvements we are planning for the future. Both of these measures demonstrate the open dialogue we have with our users, through formal quantifiable tools such as surveys to less formal meetings and discussions, all of which provide feedback and chances to continually improve.
Last December, we achieved a re-certification of our Quality Management System for the entire patent process according to a more stringent ISO 9001 standard. This covered not just our quality management for the patent granting process, but also curating and distributing patent information and all post-grant activities (e.g. opposition work, administration and records). The re-certification was achieved without any instances of non-conformity. In addition, the ISO 9001 audit indicated that the recent re-organisation of our core business would contribute to increases in quality.
Quality management is much more than just quality control, i.e. checks on finished products. Rather it is about re-engineering processes so as to reduce or eliminate opportunities for error. The fewer errors made, the less time is spent correcting them, such that it has been possible to achieve greater efficiency and productivity thanks to increasing quality - contrary to perceptions that productivity can only improve if quality suffers. The continuing high user satisfaction ratings found in the Quality Report, and as reported in the independent user survey from IAM, show that applicants appreciate our focus on quality and that the new measures we have put in place are helping us to reach new levels of quality.
The Office's re-organisation of its patent granting area, completed at the beginning of 2018, is also driven by the pursuit of quality. The Principle Directorate for quality management now includes user support because service to users, and open feedback from them, are central to the EPO's quality policy. Our processes for handling applications have been improved to reduce the number of so-called "hand-over points" between teams. By embedding formalities staff within examiner groups the EPO is achieving seamless end-to-end processing of patents within one team. This makes each team accountable for all aspects of the applications they handle, even down to processing fees. Every decision to finally grant or refuse an application is taken by three examiners inspecting the work done and the conclusions reached. This is why quality control audits of randomly selected cases show high levels of quality compliance for search (95.1%) and grant (84.7%).
Our examiners have access to over 800 million technical records in the EPO's databases. The EPO also invites other innovators and experts, to help the EPO ensure that only truly deserving inventions are granted a patent. During the examination rounds, any third party can submit evidence to the EPO examiner in relation to a pending application. In the nine months after grant, anyone with an argument to raise can make their own case and oppose a patent. Only ca 4% of granted patents are opposed, and about two-thirds of opposed patents survive wholly or in amended form. The recent re-organisation at the EPO has also created five dedicated opposition directorates to streamline the administration for these often complex challenges and to concentrate expertise and excellence in the most experienced examiners.
Timeliness is an inherent and inseparable component of quality. A brilliantly complete search report that arrives too late is no use to the applicant, nor are third parties well served by the uncertainty caused by lengthy examination times for their rivals' patents. This is why the EPO has put great efforts into successfully reducing search timeliness since 2014. Now that the average time to issue a search report has dropped to just 4.8 months (against a 6-month target) the EPO can now focus on the timeliness of examination and opposition (down to 22.1 months and 22.4 months respectively in 2017).
The credibility of the entire patent system is based on certainty, for the benefit of inventors, society and the economy. All applicants rely upon the quality of the EPO's products to be confident about the decisions they take. This is why quality remains the EPO's first priority, and why quality is at the heart of all aspects of our business: staff, tools, procedures and law.