This year the Office celebrates a string of anniversaries in European patent information – 40th, 30th, 20th and 10th – that all fall in 2018. Seen as a whole they are testimony to the EPO's staying power as the world's leading provider of patent information.
The story starts in 1978, in Vienna. Typically for Vienna, the location is a Heuriger, one of those famous taverns in the city's suburbs where all of society - locals, tourists and businessmen alike - gather to chat over a glass of chilled Grüner Veltliner wine. One evening in 1978, one of the Heuriger was the venue for a dinner for participants attending the annual gathering of INPADOC users.
At the time of the meeting in the Heuriger tavern, INPADOC (International Patent Documentation Center) was six years old and was already gaining a reputation as the people who could get copies of patent documents where others failed. INPADOC's Patent Family System (PFS) was revolutionary, a unique service showing the territorial scope of protection of an invention worldwide. But users wanted more. They needed to know if a particular patent was in force or dead. "Our main concern," remembers Wolfgang Pilch, who headed the EPO's Vienna sub-office from 2003 to 2008, "was that it would be impossible to provide a complete and error-free service. We were especially worried about the question of liability if we indicated that a patent was dead and it turned out to have been reinstated."
INPADOC also lacked the money for the necessary investment, and this is where the Heuriger evening provided a breakthrough. A delegate from Voest (an Austrian steelmaker) suggested that industry could contribute the necessary investment. The representatives from Siemens, BASF and CIBA-Geigy supported the idea, so Wolfgang Pilch rushed back to the office and worked overnight to draw up a proposal for the next day. Within a year, INPADOC had launched its Patent Register Service (PRS), known today as INPADOC worldwide legal status data. Initially only open to companies who contributed to the investment, it soon contained data from Austria, France, Germany and the UK. Today, INPADOC data is available to anyone. It covers more than 45 patent issuing authorities, and is still growing.
Meanwhile, the EPO was discovering the advantages of computers for patent searching. It soon became apparent that the set of databases that was developing could be useful to industry and the general public alike. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that there was a real public demand for information about patents and a framework was needed in Europe for patent information. Consequently, in 1988, acting on a proposal from EPO President Paul Braendli, the Administrative Council decided that the EPO should take steps to increase the use of its data by the public and to harmonise patent information dissemination in Europe. The decision remains the cornerstone of European patent information today.
In the same year, the Council gave the EPO President a brief to negotiate the integration of INPADOC into the Organisation. The negotiations were successful and an agreement between the European Patent Organisation and the Republic of Austria was signed on 2 July 1990. The EPO's Vienna sub-office opened on 1 January 1991.
Also in 1988, whilst in Japan for discussions with the trilateral partners, the future principal director for patent information, Gérard Giroud, noticed that the Japan Patent Information Organisation (Japio) was working on a new idea, called CD-ROM, for storing patent documents. A few months later, visitors from Japan demonstrated a CD-ROM workstation at the EPO in Munich. The EPO reacted fast. The first ESPACE CD-ROM disc was sold in September 1989. Almost overnight, patent information had become affordable and manageable for even the smallest of companies.
ESPACE CD-ROMs have since disappeared, but they left behind an important legacy. They were the product that established the EPO as a pioneer in the provision of lowcost patent search tools, and they provided the political platform for it to launch ESPACE-net (now Espacenet) in 1998.
Reacting to the success of the IBM Patent Server, the first free online patent search service, the EPO saw the need for a free, internet-based tool provided as a public service from a body that had no commercial interests. Furthermore, the new tool should have its home in Europe and have European users' needs at its heart.
The EPO already had the world's largest collection of patent data, having recently combined its own databases with the data it had acquired when INPADOC was integrated into it. It was also perfectly placed, with its contacts in all the member states of the European Patent Organisation, to host a service that took the diversity of the European continent into account.
Today, with more than 100 million records from some 100 patent authorities, Espacenet has 25 000 users per day. It, more than any other tool, has changed how patent information is used across the world.
The final anniversary being celebrated in this edition of Patent Information News brings us back to legal status data, in this case legal status data on European patents. It was in 2008 that Marjolaine Thulin of AWAPATENT AB (now AWA Sweden AB) in Sweden delivered a plea at the EPO Patent Information Conference for action to make it easier to understand the status of patents granted by the EPO.
The EPO heard and understood her arguments and started work immediately on finding a solution. Patent Information News 2/2018 reported on the addition of the United Kingdom to the Federated Register service (and this issue reports on the addition of Germany), which now gathers data live from 29 countries and gives an overview of the status of a single European patent in all 29 countries in an on-screen table.
Patent information plays an essential role not only in developing technological expertise in Europe, but also in evaluating future research and development programmes and guiding economic initiatives. For the past 40 years, the European Patent Office and, before it, INPADOC have consistently set new benchmarks in gathering and providing access to worldwide patent data. With this background, the EPO is committed to maintaining its position as the world's leading provider of patent information for many years to come.