Annual Review 2020

Key achievements: Goal 4

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Decorative image - Goal 4: Build a European patent system and network with a global impact

Improving access to patent information

In 2020, over three million users per month accessed the EPO's broad range of patent information services, marking a 10% increase in uptake. The enriched version of the Espacenet patent search service makes the EPO's patent information easily accessible to users, with advanced functions such as a dynamic query builder, an enhanced result list, an improved legal status overview and a responsive design.

Espacenet features over 120 million patent documents from all over the world. Access is free. It is complemented by a range of other services including the European Patent Register, the European Publication Server, Patent Translate, Global Patent Index and PATSTAT.

During 2020, work on the Strategic Plan 2023 programme "From patent information to IP knowledge" began in earnest. The programme's goal is to take users on a journey starting at patent information and ending with in-depth IP knowledge, enabling them to take informed IP-related decisions every step of the way. The programme will make the EPO's information easier to access, expand its supply of high-quality data for users and enhance links with legal status and other key information.

European Patent Academy

The European Patent Academy plays a vital role in ensuring that European patent system users have the knowledge and skills to operate effectively and foster Europe's innovation potential. In 2020, the Academy adjusted its working methods, educational formats and products to ensure growth and maximise its future impact.

While the pandemic was a challenge, it also spurred the Academy to bring innovation and learning together. Thanks to its experience in designing and implementing online education, the Academy was able to swiftly transform face-to-face activities into online formats.

Building on the pillars of co-operation, certification, modularity and digitalisation, the Academy developed a fully-fledged educational proposal in 2020. The new blueprint for the European Patent Academy promotes a modular approach to learning journeys. It aims to broaden target audiences, introduce new subjects, put co-operation with institutions and private stakeholders at the centre and promote certification and qualification.

In 2020, the Academy began developing separate, incremental learning modules structured into learning paths that lead to certification and co-labelling. The ultimate goal is to transform the Academy into a benchmark for excellence in IP training and set new standards in IP training and certification. 

The shift to online training has been rapid. In 2020, visits to the Academy's e-learning centre doubled compared with 2019. November 2020 saw a new record of 28 000 monthly visits. Its digital offering was also enlarged with new products, including a series of podcasts.

Experimenting and finding solutions tailored to stakeholders' needs largely defined the Academy's activities last year. The Search, Examination and Opposition Matters conferences, for example, were successfully digitalised by opening up virtual discussion areas coupled with online plenaries and, in the case of Examination and Opposition Matters, programming the event twice a year.

Study visits also went virtual, former onsite courses were redesigned and migrated online and the Academy also supported professional representatives with a series of online seminars on oral proceedings held by videoconference in opposition.

Together with trialling new formats, close contact with stakeholders was also crucial in 2020. Regular and ad hoc exchange meetings with partners and the negotiation and implementation of memoranda of understanding allowed the Academy to fine-tune programmed actions and design new activities.

Drawing on the expertise of EPO examiners and the Boards of Appeal, events based on debate and exchange, peer-to-peer discussions, advanced seminars, and large conferences were newly developed in digital formats to satisfy the needs of the Academy's target groups. The Academy also jointly developed a new series of SME case studies with the Chief Economist unit, and further advanced and expanded the Academic Research Programme.

A consultation with European Patent Organisation member states on the Academy's training programme, its implementation and perceptions of its work also took place in 2020. Almost 85% of the national offices participated in the consultation and showed a strong interest in the areas of search and examination, IP management and legal issues. These offices also backed the Academy's evolution towards online, modular and structured training, citing efficiency gains, increased flexibility and a broader reach as the main benefits.

Enhancing co-operation with international organisations and European institutions

Effective co-ordination with other IP offices, international organisations and European institutions is paramount, especially in times of crisis. Co-operation clearly benefits users and helps to avoid any duplication of efforts. In 2020, the EPO continued to reach out to international partners in a wide range of areas.

The EPO's annual work plan with the European Union Intellectual Property Office for 2020 focused on promoting a holistic approach to IP training and awareness, as well as producing joint economic studies with cutting-edge, fact-based analysis for European policymakers. Last year the EPO also signed a new annual work plan with the World Intellectual Property Organization, covering classification, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, IT and technical infrastructure, data exchange and training and technical assistance.

In addition to work plans with partner patent offices, the EPO also signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the European Space Policy Institute, a think tank of the European Space Agency, and renewed its memorandum of understanding with the International Renewable Energy Agency. These agreements created the framework for joint patent intelligence studies on a broad range of emerging and rapidly developing technologies.

As the patent office for Europe, the EPO is positioned at the forefront of technical progress. Thanks to its unique access to the world's largest collection of patent and non-patent literature, the EPO can produce cutting-edge business intelligence on the very latest technological trends. By teaming up with experts in fields such as energy and space, it can leverage its patent information to provide insights into emerging trends that will help innovators in the sector get ahead of the technology curve.

In autumn, the first EPO-IEA joint landscaping study was published on battery technology, where patenting is growing four times faster than average. The study, which offered users unique insights into this hot topic, generated extensive top-tier media coverage, with over 1 000 media reports in the first week after its release. The highlights video generated 8 400 views and the related social media campaign reached 33 000 Twitter users.

Lastly, the EPO started working with the European Commission to formalise a bilateral MoU. The focus will be on harnessing the synergies between the two institutions to support the European innovation ecosystem and drive a recovery from the pandemic. 

Strengthening the European patent network (EPN)

Detailed preparation of the new co-operation framework with European Patent Organisation member states culminated in its unanimous approval by the Administrative Council in June 2020. This positive outcome was largely thanks to feedback gathered via the Co‑operation Consultation Day held on 8 April and the Annual Meeting on Co-operation with Member States on 29 April. The latter meeting also offered a platform for discussion on how to jointly address crises and unexpected events with a global impact such as the pandemic.

The EPO made solid progress with its co-operation activities in 2020, implementing activities particularly in the areas of IT, search and training. The following initial outcomes were presented to and approved by the Administrative Council in December:

  • a new policy for the working agreements on search co-operation signed by 13countries to date, (Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, San Marino, United Kingdom)
  • convergence of practice projects (examination of unity of invention and designation of the inventor).

Some projects have transitioned from the previous to the new co-operation framework, including:

  • language training
  • agreements on search co-operation, including the extension of the existing agreement with the United Kingdom and the mandate from the Administrative Council to conclude agreements with Albania and Croatia
  • IP pre-diagnosis services provided in Serbia, Slovakia and Turkey, in fulfilment of previous arrangements

The EPO also supported several events, not least a high-level IP conference marking the Croatian EU presidency and the centenaries of the Latvian and Serbian national patent offices.

Strengthening the EPN: knowledge

The EPO is constantly seeking to reinforce the EPN's cohesion by creating a level playing field in terms of IP capabilities and patent quality in the European Patent Organisation member states. In 2020, the Office launched seven new projects covering learning platforms, data collection, partner networks and support for users and patent professionals.

A key dimension of patent knowledge is certification for patent professionals. After cancelling the European qualifying examination (EQE) in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the EPO immediately began exploring alternatives to a physical presence examination. In close co‑operation with the Institute of Professional Representatives before the EPO, it successfully developed a new concept for a fully digital EQE and started testing software solutions in house, with a view to holding the first digital examination in spring 2021.

The EPO's candidate support programme (CSP) once again sponsored candidates from member states, providing a small number of qualified patent professionals to help them prepare for the EQE. Nine new students enrolled for the academic year 2020/21, bringing the running total accepted on the CSP to 187 students.

But knowledge is not just about training professionals; it's also about making patent information understandable and accessible to everyone. A key pillar of the EPO's strategy for promoting the spread of patent information is its network of patent information centres or PATLIBs (patent libraries). PATLIBs aim to help innovators commercialise their ideas successfully and to promote technology transfer, and the majority are technology transfer offices in universities (40%).

In September 2020, the Office conducted a survey of all 330 PATLIBs (participation rate: 94%) with a view to mapping and rating the different levels of service provided. The EPO also completed a study on technology transfer in Europe that will inform efforts to harmonise this process across Europe.

Strengthening the EPN: convergence of practice

Last year marked a historic milestone in the convergence programme, which aims to align administrative practices more closely between the EPO and Europe's national IP offices to simplify the European patent system. In December 2020, the very first common practices - in the areas of examination of unity of invention and designation of the inventor - were endorsed by the Administrative Council.

The common practices were developed in working groups made up of representatives from member state patent offices. Users were consulted throughout the process, particularly via the Standing Advisory Committee before the EPO (SACEPO). Member states and user representatives were also given in-depth progress updates at a special event held in September.

The common practice on the examination of unity of invention covers the information to be provided to applicants as minimum reasoning when raising non-unity objections. According to the other common practice, relating to the designation of the inventor, inventors are not formally notified by patent offices of their designation in a patent application. Instead, they can obtain information about their designation from the applicant, through inspection of the patent register or via file inspection. Moreover, only the family name, given name(s), country and place of residence of designated inventors are entered in the patent register. Inventors' full addresses are not published in the register.

While the implementation of the common practices is voluntary, it is hoped that as many offices as possible will implement them due to the positive network effects. Some states are already aligned with one or even both common practices, while others have indicated that they intend to proceed with implementation as soon as possible, which may imply changing the law or amending their guidelines or internal instructions.

Strengthening the EPN: work-sharing

Work-sharing co-operation, supported by effective tools, has multiple benefits. It can help to prevent unnecessary duplication of work, promote the increased harmonisation of practices, foster efficiency and lead to the development of new products and services for industry, SMEs, research centres, universities and individual inventors.

The new policy on the working agreements on search co-operation introduced two key elements: a single search fee for all member states with a working agreement and financial support for national searches of applications filed by certain types of applicant (SMEs, universities and natural persons). The new policy entered into force on 1 January 2021.

Preparatory work also started on the launch of the "IP Outreach to foster innovation" activity. This aims to support European SMEs and researchers in better understanding the benefits and the impact of proper IP protection. This project will help the member states' offices to raise IP awareness and provide individual, personalised support services targeting SMEs, public research centres and universities.

Strengthening the EPN: IT co-operation

In 2020, the Office initiated a broad range of project working groups to facilitate technical-level co-operation between experts from national offices and user associations. A total of 33 member states and three international organisations participated in the IT co-operation working groups. As with its internal IT projects, the EPO follows a minimum viable product approach based on the incremental delivery of ever-more advanced versions of the product. This agile "build-and-learn" way of working already started delivering positive results in 2020.

The working group discussions covered the front office (covering e-filing and associated services), data quality, search, quality management and process mapping, a modular back office, the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) and a single access portal. The single access portal was prepared to facilitate electronic submission of bilateral agreements.

On the front office side, the Office demonstrated proof of concept on a generic first filing from creation of a draft to receipt at a generic national patent office (NPO) backend server. The co-operative search project conducted an analysis of NPO use cases focused on technical subjects, including security, data location and data segregation.

The quality management and process mapping project delivered maps and metrics for search, examination, publication and post-grant processes relevant for all member states involved. The data quality project conducted work on data transfer technologies aimed at favouring application programming interface web services. This project quickly led to improvements in the timeliness and quantity of patent data transferred to and from the Office to NPOs participating in the pilot.

Moving to the modular back office, a model project blueprint was developed that is designed to benefit any NPO planning to implement a back office in the future. A knowledge network was also set up for this technical IT infrastructure.

The CPC project launched an implementation survey and prepared the web page outlines for a new classification portal in consultation with end users at NPOs. A business model for CPC practices was created and the process of translating specifications for a CPC text categoriser into software requirements began.

Work on the IT co-operation programme in the first half of 2020 culminated in several demonstrations and proofs of concept, which started in September and were positively received by national offices and user associations.

Strengthening the EPN: co-operation framework

In June 2020, the Administrative Council unanimously approved the new co-operation policy between the European Patent Organisation and its member states under the Strategic Plan 2023. As a first step, the EPO held a series of bilateral co-operation meetings with member states' NPOs in the autumn to update them on preparations for implementing the new co‑operation policy.

The EPO subsequently shared a model bilateral co-operation agreement with the NPOs in a call for interest, enabling them to indicate their interest in the co-operation projects on offer. Meanwhile, consolidating feedback from the NPOs, the EPO drafted implementation guideline FAQs and kicked off the preparations for implementing the co-operation agreements.

Expanding the EPO's geographical reach

Despite the pandemic, the EPO continued to expand its geographical reach in 2020. In November the Office signed a reinforced partnership (RP) agreement with the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce of Colombia. Under this form of co-operation, partner countries outside Europe can systematically re-use the EPO's search and examination results when granting national patents. Such partnerships aim to further integrate and strengthen the global patent system by helping partner offices increase their capacity, productivity and quality through the systematic use of EPO work products, tools and practices.

Last year the EPO also advanced the implementation of the other eight RP agreements signed to date, enhancing the attractiveness of this new co-operation model globally. The standardised reuse procedure, implemented with multiple RP offices already, is to collect re-use data. This is discussed at expert review meetings, where the EPO gets direct feedback from its partners, which is used as a basis for drafting internal instructions for examiners on how to re-use available EPO work products.

Figure 13: Reinforced partnership agreement signed with Colombia

The re-use scheme with the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) was launched early in 2020 and quickly produced impressive results. According to IMPI, its timeliness/productivity has increased by 200% thanks to its RP with the EPO. The EPO supported the re-use of its procedures with special training for RP offices throughout the year. Over ten online seminars were organised on several topics related to search and substantive examination, with a focus on computer-implemented inventions, biotech/pharma and EPOQUE Net.

The clear benefits of RP co-operation are encouraging a growing number of national offices to express an interest in the RP co-operation programme. In 2020, negotiations were either launched or continued with several other national patent offices.

In the area of validation, the EPO took a major step towards concluding an agreement with the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI) in 2020, when OAPI's Administrative Council approved the revised Bangui Protocol in December 2020, making provision for the introduction of the validation system. Cambodia also offered to support the EPO in promoting validation among interested offices in Southeast Asia. Lastly, Ethiopia confirmed its interest in transitioning to the validation system once it has revised its patent law and joins the Paris Convention and Patent Cooperation Treaty.

Fostering multilateral co-operation

The EPO's multilateral co-operation activities aim to improve the global patent system by promoting technical and procedural convergence between the world's major IP offices. Seeking joint responses to global challenges through trilateral (EPO, Japan Patent Office, United States Patent and Trademark Office) and IP5 co-operation (China National Intellectual Property Administration, EPO, Japan Patent Office, Korean Intellectual Property Office, United States Patent and Trademark Office) is clearly the way forward for the EPO, which is an organisation founded on the principle of co-operation. Closer alignment with the design (ID5) and trade mark (TM5) co-operation frameworks will help to promote a strong pro-IP agenda and improve outreach to stakeholders. This will be paramount to supporting innovators in the post-COVID-19 era.

Spurred by the global pandemic, the EPO and its IP5 partner offices stepped up their efforts towards full digitalisation of the IP5 co-operation framework. As a result, starting in February 2020 all working-level meetings were held virtually and joint projects continued to deliver results. The IP5 offices also worked towards full transparency on their measures taken in response to COVID-19, publishing a special section with a compilation of useful links on the IP5 website.

Last year the IP5 offices also advanced their co-operation in the area of new emerging technologies (NET) and artificial intelligence (AI). Created at the initiative of the EPO, the new interdisciplinary IP5 task force met for the first time in Berlin in January 2020 to scope areas of potential future co-operation. This was the first milestone towards developing a comprehensive IP5 NET/AI roadmap, which will form the basis of joint IP5 initiatives.

Figure 14: EPO and KIPO host first IP5 task force meeting on NET/AI in January 2020 in Berlin

Together with its partner offices, the EPO started to flesh out a concept to harness synergies. This will help the offices in their endeavours to promote a comprehensive IP agenda in response to the needs of users who handle large IP portfolios with bundles of global IP rights.

Figure 15: IP5 heads meet for their 13th annual meeting

Convergence of practice between IP offices can bring major gains in the quality and validity of patents, as well as the predictability of the legal process, benefitting offices and users alike. After successfully concluding a first round of harmonisation in the areas of unity of invention, citation of prior art and written description/sufficiency of disclosure, the IP5 offices worked with industry associations to identify new priority areas for procedural alignment in 2020.

Lastly, the EPO hosted the 38th Trilateral Conference, held as a virtual event for the first time in December 2020. Based on input from a meeting with Trilateral industry associations, the Trilateral heads of office agreed on a new vision statement and new Trilateral objectives, as well as a new framework for future Trilateral meetings.

Partnership and dialogue with users

In the past, the EPO has always actively and frequently engaged with user representatives from all IP5 regions, and particularly with representatives of European user associations. Regular meetings offer an opportunity to discuss and consult with users on key matters related to a rapidly evolving European and global environment.

In 2020, the Office's user interactions moved to a new level. As the pandemic unfolded, the EPO reached out to users with increasing frequency. By swiftly adopting videoconferencing, the EPO was able to maintain close contact with users in virtual meetings and at online events. Frank exchanges proved a strong basis for finding the best possible joint solutions for European patent system users in an unprecedented time of crisis.

Bimonthly meetings with BusinessEurope and the Institute of Professional Representatives before the EPO were part of this intensified dialogue. Discussing the challenges posed by the pandemic and its impact on users with key business associations and the patent profession enabled the EPO to tailor its support measures to meet users' needs and secure business continuity.

The "Partnership for Quality" meetings with user representatives from the IP5 regions held in 2020 touched on a range of procedural matters. They included safeguards introduced during the pandemic, the EPO's Quality Report, timeliness, oral proceedings by videoconference, the Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, electronic signatures and recent developments with the unitary patent and Unified Patent Court.

Improving the quality of Patent Cooperation Treaty services and products

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is key at the EPO. The EPO issued over 80 000 international search reports in 2020, corresponding to a third of the global total. Euro-PCT applications entering the European phase account for 60% of all EPO filings, and grants based on such applications represent 65% of the total. The PCT programme aims to ensure that the EPO continues to provide high-quality products and services for the benefit of its users and stakeholders.

Solid progress was made towards improving PCT minimum documentation in 2020, with a view to updating Rules 34 and 36 PCT by 2023. The task force set up by the Meeting of International Authorities and led by the EPO convened for the second time in December 2020. Most authorities participated in the meeting, which focused on the legal and technical requirements for the inclusion of patent collections and non-patent literature.

In June 2020, the operational phase of the IP5 pilot on PCT collaborative search and examination led by the EPO came to an end. A total of 468 files were accepted and their corresponding search reports issued in the pilot (100 for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Korean Intellectual Property Office and the EPO, 93 for the China National Intellectual Property Administration and 75 for the Japan Patent Office). The pilot has now entered a two-year evaluation phase aimed at assessing the results based on a set of quality and operational indicators. The pilot will also gather feedback from participants with a view to making recommendations to the IP5 heads in June 2022.

The PCT paperless service launched in 2016 ensures the electronic transmission of search copies and documents from receiving Offices to the EPO as International Searching Authority (ISA) via the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). By the end of 2020, all but one of the receiving Offices having selected the EPO as ISA had joined the new service.

In addition to saving patent office resources, this service also benefits PCT users by supporting the EPO's efforts to issue international search reports on time for the A1 publication at 18 months (97% in 2020). Its rollout should be concluded by early 2021.

The new PCT fee transfer service launched in 2020 has led to major efficiency gains in the financial operation of the PCT system. By the end of last year, 53 receiving Offices were already transferring search fees to the EPO as ISA via WIPO, representing around 97% of all search fee transactions. The EPO will continue to work closely with WIPO to further extend the service to more receiving offices in 2021.

Broadening the impact of the European patent system and network

In November 2019, the EPO signed a historic agreement with the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA). Thanks to this agreement, Chinese applicants filing their international applications in English with the CNIPA or the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as receiving Office can select the EPO as their International Searching Authority (ISA). This makes the EPO the first patent office outside of China that can be designated as an ISA for Chinese applicants. Both offices officially launched the two-year pilot on 1 December 2020.

As access to Chinese patent documentation is of high relevance for all stakeholders, the EPO extended the memorandum of understanding on data exchange for another three years and reached a breakthrough, loading into the EPO databases all pre-2010 CNIPA citations. The EPO also agreed to the delivery of consolidated legal status information for EP and CNIPA patents, with a view to providing real-time online access to legal status data. 

In 2020, the EPO signed work plans with Moldova, Georgia and Jordan, either to develop new co-operation projects with existing validation states or to prepare for new validation agreements. A harmonised package of actions was devised to support the development of offices that already have validation agreements with the EPO. The aim is to foster outreach and awareness at a national level, to offer training for stakeholders and to develop digitised tools for data management and data exchange.

The number of patent offices classifying in the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) increased to 30 last year with the addition of the Romanian office. This group had the opportunity to gather in Geneva in February 2020 to mark the EPO-United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) 7th CPC Annual Meeting with national offices classifying in the CPC. They were joined by representatives of the German office, the Moroccan office, the Japanese office and WIPO who attended as observers. This was an excellent opportunity for the participants to gain insights into implementing the world's most refined patent classification system, and to learn from the experiences of their peers. 

Figure 17: Member states and Cooperative Patent Classification

The EPO continued to support its partners with online CPC training activities in 2020. With a better understanding of the EPO's classification practice, our partner offices can achieve better results in terms of consistency, benefitting all searchers using the CPC. The EPO and USPTO maintained a steady pace in revising the CPC scheme with definitions to keep the system up to date and fit for purpose. The backlog of revision projects was slashed to virtually zero after the summer. This lays the foundations for the faster, more efficient implementation of changes in the system in the future (see p. 36 "Mastering the prior art" for further details).

Via the EPO Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) network, which comprises 16 partner offices worldwide, European applicants can obtain patents more quickly and efficiently elsewhere through a fast-track procedure allowing for the re-use of the EPO's high-quality work products. Since early 2020, and in view of growing participation figures and positive user feedback, the EPO is gradually implementing the PPH programme as a permanent procedure.

To date, EPO PPH working arrangements with 12 partner offices are operating on a non‑trial basis. This includes the Eurasian Patent Office and the offices of Canada, China, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore and the USA. The remaining four trials, with Australia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, are expected to be completed and exit the pilot phase in the coming years.

Lastly, the Office participated in the Global Intellectual Property Challenges Forum (IP20+) on the margins of the G20, organised by Saudi Arabia in October. The Forum's objective was to identify the priorities of the international community in responding to emergency situations, as the COVID-19 pandemic. Closer co-operation between the EPO and the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property is under advanced discussion.

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