Patents and standards

The EPO is committed to achieving the highest possible quality in the patent granting process. The EPO's prior-art search - a key element in maintaining quality - seeks to find documents relevant for novelty and inventive step from all relevant sources. Within the area of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), one of the highest growth areas in EPO patent applications, standards-related documentation has proven essential. In fact, around 70% of search reports in some standards-intensive areas include one or more standards-related citations.

Standards - a set of requirements for a specific item, material, component, system or service, or a particular method or procedure - are developed to ensure compatibility and interoperability of components, products and services. They are a central pillar of the modern "knowledge economy" and promote the dissemination of new technologies.

Particularly in ICT, where the pace of development is unprecedented, the standards often integrate new and patented technologies, leading to interactions between the two systems.

Standards development is typically the responsibility of Standards Development Organisations (SDOs). A group of interested stakeholders who have identified a need for a new standard will work together to define the scope and requirements, then propose technological solutions to the problem(s) identified. These technical disclosures are normally published before the final standard is agreed upon and are thus very relevant for the patent granting process.

The EPO has developed a unique approach to maintaining high patent quality in this fast-growing area. Adhering to the policy of co-operating with key SDOs, the EPO has collated standards-related documentation from many different bodies, including:

  • European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)
  • 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)
  • International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC)
  • Joint Technical Committee of ISO and IEC (JTC1), including the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG)
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Standards Association (IEEESA)
  • Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

By incorporating standards documentation into its internal databases, the EPO uses it as an integral part of the patent granting process, with patent examiners in these areas being systematically trained on searching the resulting standards documentation.

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The EPO's internal databases now contain some 4.4 million standards-related documents. Nearly 10 000 EPO search reports included one or more standards-related citations in 2021, an increase of around 50% compared with 2018. This prior art plays a critical role in specific fields such as telecommunications, audio and video media, and computing. In audio-video coding, a key technology area, nearly 70% of search reports include one or more standards-related citations.

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The bibliographic details of these citations are always available via the "Citations" document pane of the EPO's patent information services such as Espacenet or the European Patent Register. The following example is a citation of an ETSI document:

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Like most non-patent literature citations, ETSI citations are not directly available to the public from the EPO's patent information services due to copyright and other limitations. But with some SDOs, such as 3GPP, W3C and IETF, they are readily available online, e.g. by copying the URL given. Where possible for non-patent literature, the EPO will include a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to help patent users access these documents, as shown in the following example:

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The number of standards documents, as well as EPO citations, is increasing continually due to growing digitisation and the 4th Industrial Revolution, which depend on the internet, Wi-Fi, mobile telecommunications networks and other networks providing inter-connectivity. Similarly, the technical areas relying on standards are continually expanding as more and more technological developments (such as in the automotive industry) rely on "computer-implemented inventions".

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