European Patent Network

The European Patent Network was set up as a result of the strategy debate (June 2004 - June 2006) on co-operation between the EPO and the national IP offices of the member states. The new co-operation initiatives by the partners in the Network are designed to improve the efficiency of Europe's patent system.

In June 2006, the EPN was officially and unanimously adopted by the EPO Administrative Council through the "Joint Statement on the European Patent Network". At the same time 5 key elements of the EPN were defined: Source
• Pilot on utilisation by the EPO of work done by NPOs
• European Quality System
• User support activities
• Study on future workload
• New cooperation policy between the EPO and NPOs

Following the Joint Statement on the European Patent Network, the EPO should:
a. Stick to its core business.
b. Recognize and accept the specific responsibility of the NPOs
c. Recognize and accept NPOís role as part of the overall patent network.
d. Accept and obey the principle of subsidiarity in relation to the contribution of
the NPOís.

The network model could be based on the following interlinked principles:
a. Free choice for applicants
b. No compulsory outsourcing
(outsourcing must not exceed 5% of total demand addressed to EPO (if necessary this exact figure could be reviewed)
c. No automatic utilisation by EPO of the work of NPOs
d. Equal treatment of all member States
e/ Introduction and assurance of equal quality standards.

Following the EPO website
The Network has four main pillars: the Utilisation Pilot Project, a new Co-Operation Policy, the Customer Service Project and the Quality Project.

Launched in January 2007, the Utilisation Pilot Project will enable EPO examiners processing European patent applications that claim priority from a first filing to make appropriate use of work already carried out by national patent offices on national filings. This will help prevent duplication of work within the Network and improve the quality of the European patent system thanks to a feedback mechanism from EPO examiners to national offices. Depending on the results of this pilot project, the Administrative Council will decide in June 2008 whether to go ahead with the full-scale roll-out of the utilisation scheme within the EPN.

The new Co-operation Policy will focus - among other things - on harmonising national practice, long-term training of patent office staff, use of databases and other tools, and raising patent awareness in member countries. In that way, the European patent system will help to promote innovation and economic growth. The PATLIB (Patent information centres) network will play a crucial role in this.

Working groups have been or will be set up to prepare the remaining projects. The Customer Service Project will enhance the EPO's support for services provided by national patent offices to users of the patent system, including "standard" and "special" searches .

The purpose of the Quality Project is to review existing quality systems in the institutions of the Network and prepare a set of minimum standards they should implement.


BLOG@IP::JUR Patent Attorney Axel H Horns' Blog on Intellectual Property Law.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

European Patent Network EPN - The Unknown Entity?

According to the EXTERNAL LINKexplanations as given on the EXTERNAL LINKEPO website, a European Patent Network (EPN) is about to be set up as a result of the EXTERNAL LINKstrategy debate from June 2004 to June 2006 on co-operation between the EPO and the EXTERNAL LINKnational IP offices (NPOs) of the EPC Member States (see also my earlier postings INTERNAL LINKhere and INTERNAL LINKthere). The target is said officially to be new co-operation initiatives should be designed to improve the efficiency of Europe's patent system.

However, it appears as if that strategy debate has been a somewhat unharmonious undertaking. The idea of the EPN means in reality that there will be some workload shifting from EPO to NPOs in order to help the national central authorities to survive the ever growing acceptance of the EPO amongst applicants all around the world. It should not come as a surprise that any such measures have a tremendous potential to foster a fierce struggle for economic resources.

Council Document CA/93/07 dated June 04, 2007, and titled EXTERNAL LINKGovernance of the EPO: a Staff Perspective leaked to FFII helped to shed some light on the struggle behind the scenes related to that matter: A 2006 Staff Survey containing questions relating to the EPO Administrative Council unveiled that there is a deep trench of distrust between the Administrative Council made up by national representatives of the EPC Member States, on the one hand, and a vast majority of EPO staff, on the other hand. Open comments collected by the survey provided some answers as to why EPO staff does not trust its Administrative Council. Of these open comments 93.7% were negative, 5.5 neutral (mostly "no comment") and only 0.7% positive. In particular, more than two-thirds of the comments pointed at conflicts between national or personal interests, and the interests of the EPO. From these comments the representatives of the staff concluded conclude that staff perceives the delegations in the Administrative Council as representing their "own" interests rather than the interests of the EPO. One of the two major issues that stood out amongst the open comments in the 2006 staff survey was decentralisation. The push towards decentralisation of some Member States in the Administrative Council was perceived by the staff as an attempt to weaken and even to dismantle the EPO to the benefit of national offices.

Now I've got some hint asserting that full ranks of the EPO management (about 400 employees) will have a three days seminar in Prague during the coming week to discuss the EPN. One of the focus points will be something like a meta-project called "Domain 'Building EPN'", and the view of the head of the team in charge with that matter thinks that the EPN should be understood as a network of equal partners between the NPOs and the EPO. According to his approach, the role of the EPO within the EPN will change from dominance to co-operation on a variety of issues. The NPOs, so goes his vision, will be the local partner and service provider for industry and especially SMEs, the EPO will be one partner and can provide central services and a back office for the network on request. Then the EPO will be responsible for delivering European Patents of standardised high quality (EQMS). Innovation support for the users (i.e. SMEs and innovation society at large) in all member states will be delivered by the NPOs which can rely on support from the EPO if requested.

EPN1.png

Still according to my source, the vision of the EPN, i.e. the role of NPOs and EPO within the network, still needs to be confirmed with the NPOs, on the one hand, and the EPO, on the other hand. Furthermore, the EPO has to progress in a way that creates trust and dissipates suspicion of dominance and control. EPO staff, goes the text, has to deal with NPO representatives in a networking fashion. The NPO partners in the network will be asked to take over tasks and duties which they contribute to the benefit of the European Patent System and help to migrate from "patents only" to "innovation". And, finally, indication is made that all partners will have to understand that the NPOs have a clear role and there is no policy to reduce or abolish them.

The EPN has four main pillars:

* The Utilisation Pilot Project: Launched in January 2007, the Utilisation Pilot Project aims to enable EPO examiners processing European patent applications that claim priority from a first filing to make appropriate use of work already carried out by national patent offices on national filings. This is intended to help prevent duplication of work within the Network and improve the quality of the European patent system thanks to a feedback mechanism from EPO examiners to national offices. Depending on the results of this pilot project, the Administrative Council will decide in June 2008 whether to go ahead with the full-scale roll-out of the utilisation scheme within the EPN.
* A new Co-Operation Policy: The new Co-operation Policy will focus, inter alia, on harmonising national practice, long-term training of patent office staff, use of databases and other tools, and raising patent awareness in member countries. In that way, the European patent system intends help to promote innovation and economic growth. The PATLIB (Patent information centres) network is positioned to play a crucial role in this.
* The Customer Service Project: The Customer Service Project aims to enhance the EPO's support for services provided by national patent offices to users of the patent system, including "standard" and "special" searches.
* The Quality Project: The purpose of the Quality Project is to review existing quality systems in the institutions of the Network and prepare a set of minimum standards they should implement.

Now, a number of particular projects have been identified within the "Building EPN" Domain, comprising, inter alia:
* Creating a common entry point for the EPN: Common access and harmonised website, phone number, virtual help-desk, forum), indicating the users of the EPN that a change is occurring, creating a new identity.
* So-called "Killer Searches" in view of Article 115 EPC.
* Pre-filing searches will be set up with highest priority because of EPO thinks they will help filtering inventions.
* Defensive publications.
* Search tools for first time users.
* EPOLOC, a new patent documentation tool which the EPO has recently developed. This locally available database can be installed at NPOs and may be used for professional patent search. Together with other freely available databases on the Internet the tool will empower local search capacities.
* A similarity search system.
* Improvements in existing systems (esp@cenet).
* Patent awareness campaigns.
* Patent information training.
* Multi-language documents.
* A central database for maintenance, fee payment, and legal status.
* Document exchange.

EPN2.png

The EPO staff union SUEPO appears not to be happy about all that. A recent paper of theirs summarises the results up to now of the Utilisation Pilot Project as follows:

"[…] A carefully-planned pilot project designed to establish benefits from utilising the work of the National Patent Offices is being undermined by lack of interest from the applicants. […]"

The paper complains about the role of NPO project teams involved in the assessment and preparation of the UPP findings. Moreover, the paper says that in reality, instead of the projected 1500 patent applications to be processed on the UPP track the total received so far after nine months of project duration is a meager figure of just 14 filings. Of these, 6 are said to have been assessed with "mixed" results, which, in the understanding of SUEPO, means outright "negative". Of the total of 14 filings, 12 are from Austria, and one each from Denmark and the UK, with none from Germany. None is in a high-tech field.

**The conclusion as drawn from SUEPO is as follows:

"[…] Nothing could more clearly show the irrelevance of NPO work for the applicants, who are abstaining with their feet. […]"**

This situation makes SUEPO to think about how applicants could be lured or even forced in future to give work to the NPOs. In this context, SUEPO gives a particular interpretation of the desired "Common Entry Point to the EPN" by assuming that EPO plus NPOs will, within a further project called "e2e" (electronic end-to-end processing), not further give applicants any choice. According to SUEPO, this project foresees a single central entry point to the EPN for all European filings so that the "network" can decide who does what. Furthermore according to SUEPO, the EPO will eventually be fragmented into a decentralised structure in which examiners are employed locally and under local working conditions, and technical fields are assigned per NPO.

In my view it is virtually impossible at the time being for the general public to properly assess the EPN debate due to lack of sufficient and sound information. Creation of a co-operative network including EPO, OHIM, and NPOs sounds as if there might come up something like a win-win concept. However, the concerns as uttered by SUEPO people are well suited to cast a cloud over the EPN as currently being planned by EPO and by the political stakeholders behind the Administrative Council. I do not know as to whether or not those concerns are well-founded or not. Of course, if for example the applicants were denied direct interaction with individual Offices because of they are coerced to accept funneling via some sort of common EPN portal a number of critical questions should come up. But if SUEPO is right it might well be reasonable to assume that there is a much broader but up to now partially hidden agenda behind the topic of INTERNAL LINKHow To Survive When The EPO No Longer Accepts Paper.

One of the crucial points might well be the usual secrecy of the deliberations of the Administrative Council. Official papers tabled on its sessions are made accessible by the general public on a very selective basis only, and the regular summaries of the results as published in the Official Gazette usually do not give any particular insights into the debate preceding the final decisions. It certainly would be a significant improvement if the processes within the Administrative Council could be more transparent. The national Governments of the EPC Member States might wish to have a look at the on-line EXTERNAL LINKdocument repository of the EU Council where the general public can gain insights by inspecting a wealth of documents without charge on their computers over the Internet. Only if there are specific reasons, Official documents of the EU Council may be withheld from public file inspection. Far from being absolutely perfect, such a regime might, however, well be suitable for consideration as a template for a more open document regime of the Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation.


CA/63/06 e
060390041
CA/63/06
Orig.: en
Munich, 15.02.2006

SUBJECT: The strategy debate: the way forward

DRAWN UP BY:
1. Austrian delegation
2. Danish delegation
3. Estonian delegation
4. Finnish delegation
5. Hellenic delegation
6. Hungarian delegation
7. Icelandic delegation
8. Latvian delegation
9. Norwegian delegation
10. Portuguese delegation
11. Spanish delegation
12. Swedish delegation

ADDRESSEES:
Administrative Council (for opinion)

“In addition, we continue to subscribe to the relevantpassage in CA/94/05 on the European patent network concerning the role ofthe Council: —the political role of the AC should be strengthened and the ACshould concentrate its work on … strategic issues“.” (page 3)

(…)
When establishing the European Patent Network one has to contemplate the entire process, from the filing of a national application in the NPOs to the final grant in the EPO, considering how the work done in the NPOs can be used by the EPO in the grant procedure. To establish a cost effective and efficient patent process in Europe it is essential that the resources in the European patent process are used in an effective way and that the quality of the search and examination meets the expectations of the users of the system.
This can be achieved by establishing cooperation on search and preliminary examination in a European Patent Network. The network shall be based on a European standard for search and (preliminary) examination. This standard also has to be applicable to the PCT procedure in Europe, which will result in a further harmonisation between the PCT and EPC regulations. The standard should comprise the following items:
1.Search
2.Patent practice
3.Examiner competence and training
4.Tools
5.Feedback system

(p. 6)

“VI Conclusion
The delegations behind this document are of the opinion that it is both possible
and necessary to start assembling the elements needed to build a network of
cooperating patent offices in Europe. The principles and suggestions in this
document show a possible way forward in this respect. We invite the Office and all
Member States to a constructive dialogue and cooperation in order to develop this
matter further and in more concrete terms” (p. 8)