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Quality vs quantity at the European Patent Office

27th Mar 2018

The European Patent Office (EPO) has recently released its Annual Report 2017. The report talks about an increase in demand, increase in granted patents and an increase in productivity. But have all these increases allowed the EPO to keep their high standards?

Many patent examiners certainly think not. Recently published is a letter to the Administrative Council of the EPO, the EPO’s supervising body, signed by 924 European patent examiners saying that increased targets are reducing the quality of patents. The letter states that examiners are being put in a position of choosing between working according to the EPC and examiner’s guidelines, or issuing ‘products’.

Looking at the statistics in the annual report it is evident that the EPO has a continuing increase in workload. Last year the number of applications increased by 3.9% to 165,590. On top of this the EPO has reduced their backlog of patents by 7% in 2017. This increased workload has seen the number of issued ‘products’ (searches, examinations, oppositions) increased by 4.6% to 414,269. However, contrast this with an increase of only 1.5% in the number of examiners and it can only mean that examiners are taking on more work.

In contrast to the opinion of those 924 examiners, the EPO claim that their quality is improving. The Annual Report states the percentage of customers who were satisfied or very satisfied with search and examination procedures increased from 79% to 80%. However this does not necessarily tell the entire story. If patent examiners are spending less time on each ‘product’, then that means less time to find and read relevant prior art and less time to find faults in an application. Spending less time per ‘product’ would seem to lean to the benefit of the applicant, and if someone has an application granted, they would be less likely to be dissatisfied with the service they received. However that does not necessarily mean that the service was of good quality.

A report by Intellectual Asset Management last year asked private practice firms how they perceive the quality of the patents has changed in the past year, and interestingly 15% thought the quality had improved compared to 7% thinking it had got worse. There definitely is not an easy and clear answer to the question of quality.

One thing is clear from the report though, and that is that the EPO still remains at the top of the quality rankings for large patent offices, consistently outperforming their US, Japanese, Korean and Chinese equivalents. Despite any troubles it might have, the EPO remains one of the most attractive patent offices in the world for applicants.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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