Annual Review 2021

Key achievements: Goal 4

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

Strengthening the European Patent Network (EPN)

The EPN is a unique framework, encompassing both interaction and co-operation. It brings together the EPO with the national patent offices of the 38 member states of the European Patent Organisation.

In addition, closer ties have been developed with EUIPO in recent years to present a comprehensive spectrum of activities that embraces all IP rights for our partners and users in Europe. The two European Patent Organisation extension states - Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro - are also participating in these efforts.

On 29 December 2021, the Montenegrin parliament took an important legislative step by ratifying the European Patent Convention (EPC), thereby paving the way for Montenegro's accession to the EPC as the 39th European Patent Organisation member state.

In February, over 100 national office representatives joined the EPO for the first digital co‑operation information and consultation day since the adoption of the EPO's new co‑operation policy. Discussions on the preparation of bilateral agreements and project-related issues were accompanied by a demonstration of the prototype bilateral agreement builder tool.

During the subsequent Annual Meeting on Co-operation with member states on 11 May 2021, the EPO and member states reviewed the progress made in the first year of the new co-operation framework and exchanged views on some of the Office's key proposals, such as the Academy Blueprint, the future Observatory and the new normal.

Strengthening the EPN: co-operation framework

Co-operation framework activities flourished in 2021. The information and consultation day for member states in February 2021 kicked off the practical implementation of co-operation initiatives. It was followed by a first round of bilateral meetings with member states in March 2021, where negotiations began on bilateral co-operation agreements based on the new co‑operation catalogue.

Figure 40: Overview of bilateral co-operation milestones

Figure 40: Overview of bilateral co-operation milestones

Source: EPO

The second round of co-operation meetings in September/October 2021 focused on discussions on the content of the respective co-operation agreements and the status of co‑operation projects. The drafting process was supported by the new bilateral agreement builder tool, for which member states received training in April 2021.

A total of 24 bilateral co-operation agreements were signed, 22 with member states and two with extension states. This positive outcome is mainly due to very close collaboration between the EPO and member states and reflects their shared commitment to building a stronger global patent system.

Strengthening the EPN: work-sharing

The EPN enables the EPO to effectively support contracting states in building a modern, efficient and high-quality patent system across Europe. Supported by effective tools, work-sharing promotes efficiency, avoids duplication of efforts and encourages a greater harmonisation of practices.

This, in turn, encourages the development of new products and services for industry, universities, research centres and inventors. Thanks to efficiency gains, national offices can redeploy resources to provide much-needed support to local industry and users.

The new policy on the working agreements on search co-operation, which entered into force on 1 January 2021, introduced two key elements: a single search fee for all participating member states and stronger financial support for national searches of patent applications filed by small entities (SMEs, universities, research centres and natural persons) and for which the search is performed by the EPO.

2021 saw the implementation of the new policy qualifying a maximum of 400 national patent applications filed by small entities in a participating member state for financial support. In total, the EPO performed 27 282 national searches from the 15 offices that have signed a working agreement on search co-operation. Some 2 240 of these patent applications (8%) were identified as eligible for financial support from the co-operation budget.

In addition to the 13 countries already participating (Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, San Marino, United Kingdom), Albania and Croatia also signed a working agreement on search co-operation in 2021.

Figure 41: Participation in working agreements on search co-operation in 2021

Figure 41: Participation in working agreements on search co-operation in 2021

Source: EPO

2021 also saw a surge of interest in the utilisation implementation scheme. This work‑sharing scheme encourages more member states to share the search/examination/classification results of their national applications with the EPO prior to publication of the respective application.

Sweden joined the scheme in 2021, while the Czech Republic is in the testing phase and will join the scheme in 2022. Two other national offices expressed interested in implementing the scheme in their bilateral agreements and preparations were initiated.

Figure 42: Participation in utilisation implementation scheme in 2021

Figure 42: Participation in utilisation implementation scheme in 2021

Source: EPO

Strengthening the EPN: IT co-operation

IT co-operation within the EPN accelerated in 2021, with several projects even delivered ahead of schedule. This remarkable progress was achieved thanks to excellent collaboration with national offices. It was also accelerated by the use of a minimum viable product (MVP) approach, based on the incremental delivery of ever more advanced versions of new software.

The Front Office project went from launching a call for interest to select pilot countries at the beginning of the year to rolling out MVPs in two of the pilots: Lithuania and Spain, where the first real filings were received in 2021.

Advances were also made in the Single Access Portal project. 2021 saw the launch of the portal featuring the bilateral agreement builder and the PATLIB collaboration platform. The first phase of the MICADO [6] replacement in the Single Access Portal was also tested by selected Administrative Council members.

Towards the end of the year, working versions of a new website for the Standing Advisory Committee before the EPO (SACEPO) and a technical co-operation area were delivered, where detailed documentation can be consulted, posted and exchanged on these projects.

In the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) project, rapid progress was made towards offering a range of new services to national offices that enables them to deliver their classification information. Highlights included the roll-out of the External Classification Portal, containing useful CPC-related information, as well as the CPC reclassification service.

One of the most exciting developments in 2021 was the launch of pilots of the new search tool in several member states, based on data policy and data protection rules, which was achieved in close co-operation with the working group.

Another highlight in the area of IT co-operation was the creation of an information security working group. The need for such a group was a key takeaway from the EPN Cloud Event in 2021 and was highlighted by several members of the Administrative Council.

Building tools sometimes requires timely technical support. In 2021, the EPO launched a scheme giving member states actively participating in major software developments the option to request support in the form of deployed technical experts. In 2021, Lithuania and Spain both received this expert support from the EPO as pilot countries in the Front Office project. The same process was initiated for Greece. Overall, 2021 saw the EPO's IT co‑operation activities move beyond discussions about the future to implementation, delivering early wins in many areas.

[6] MICADO is a platform currently collecting documents managed by the Council Secretariat.

Strengthening the EPN: convergence of practice

Companies and inventors seeking patent protection in Europe sometimes face diverging practices at national patent offices and the EPO. This complicates the existing European patent system, leading to increased costs and inefficiency for applicants.

A programme launched by the EPO under its Strategic Plan 2023 aims to reduce - or even overcome - these differences by establishing common practices in selected areas, to be implemented on a voluntary basis.

In early 2021, working groups 3 and 4 were set up in the areas "accordance of a priority date" and "re-establishment of rights". They followed on from the successful conclusion of working groups on examination of unity of invention and designation of the inventor, launched in 2020.

The two working groups held several meetings and concluded their work in autumn 2021. Participation was remarkably high, with over 20 contracting states and extension states represented in each of the groups. Both common practices were submitted to the Administrative Council for adoption in spring 2022.

Strengthening the EPN: knowledge

In March 2021, the EPO organised the first-ever edition of the online European qualifying examination (EQE), with almost 3 800 candidates. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

The online EQE ensured continuity in the training and qualification of patent professionals in Europe, despite the pandemic. It also enabled the EPO to fulfil one of its primary goals: of providing accessible education and certification across Europe in a convenient, cost-effective manner.

Figure 43: Facts and figures on the first online EQE

Figure 43: Facts and figures on the first online EQE

Source: EPO

The EPO's candidate support project (CSP) continued to sponsor and support patent professionals from certain member states to prepare for the EQE, helping 21 students to pass the EQE in 2021. In the academic year 2021/22, two new candidates enrolled and a total of 42 students attended courses and coaching. Around 120 students also received support in the form of learning materials.

In 2021, the project to define and launch the first-ever certification for patent administrators (EPAC) was also approved. A steering group was set up, bringing together members from the EPO, the Institute of Professional Representatives before the European Patent Office (epi), the European Platform of Intellectual Property Administrators (EPIPA) and national offices (representing France and Germany). The group met regularly to discuss the format, regularity and syllabus of the new, fully digital certification. A support group also started drafting the examination, training material and rules that will form the basis of the first EPAC, scheduled to take place by the end of 2022.

PATLIB network

The PATLIB 2.0 project intends to promote the development of the patent information (PATLIB) centres, encouraging them to expand their knowledge and supporting them in their endeavours. Through this project, the EPO champions its commitment to enhancing the economic and societal value of patents, allowing the PATLIB centres to develop new services, particularly in technology transfer, as well as providing a platform to enhance the effectiveness of the patent system.

Figure 44: Benefits realisation cycle for PATLIB 2.0

Figure 44: Benefits realisation cycle for PATLIB 2.0

Source: EPO

In May, the PATLIB2021 online conference was co-organised with the European Commission. Over 1 100 participants from all continents registered for the event, representing a sixfold increase compared to previous editions of the conference. The milestone achievements reached in PATLIB 2.0 during 2021 include:

  • completion of a technology transfer study allowing the team to steer activities and fill existing gaps in Europe
  • ranking of all PATLIB centres at one of the three levels defined, based on the type of services provided
  • completion of a landscaping study of European commercialisation support initiatives, enabling the PATLIB network to organise activities that fill knowledge gaps
  • training modules for PATLIB centres to promote upskilling
  • update of the centre directory, showing their service portfolios and giving the public easier access to PATLIB services
  • publication of a list of IP experts located in PATLIB centres who participate in high-level EPO training and are trainers and/or content creators themselves
  • launch of a new digital platform using collaboration tools to facilitate knowledge sharing, document exchange and discussion.

Figure 45: PATLIB2021 online conference held on 18-19 May 2021

Figure 45: PATLIB2021 online conference held on 18-19 May 2021

Source: EPO

Unitary Patent package

2021 was a momentous year for the Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court (UPC). Germany and Slovenia deposited their instruments of ratification concerning the protocol on provisional application of the UPC Agreement (PPA), while Austria completed its parliamentary ratification procedure in early December 2021. These steps paved the way for the start of the provisional application phase on 19 January 2022, a day after Austria formally deposited its instrument of ratification.

In view of the positive developments in Germany and Slovenia, the Chair of the Select Committee convened a meeting on 14 October 2021. The Committee adopted a detailed work programme for 2022, consisting of the following tasks to be completed by June 2022:

  • adjustments to the Rules relating to Unitary Patent Protection (UPR)
  • allocation of the initially envisaged share of renewal fee income of the United Kingdom following its withdrawal from the EU
  • updating the scenarios concerning the Unitary Patent's potential financial impact
  • updating the communication plan in close co-operation with the member states
  • updating the results of the questionnaire on national measures accompanying the implementation of the Unitary Patent
  • finalising the IT interfaces for the data exchanges between the EPO and national offices

By the end of 2021, the EPO had already made solid progress in completing its few remaining outstanding tasks. To encourage an early uptake of the Unitary Patent, the EPO informed the participating member states and users at the December meeting of the Select Committee that it would implement transitional arrangements, giving users the option of filing early requests for unitary effect and the possibility to request a delay in issuing the decision to grant a European patent during the sunrise period of the provisional application phase.

Figure 46: Overview of recent milestones ahead of the launch of the Unitary Patent/UPC

Figure 46: Overview of recent milestones ahead of the launch of the Unitary Patent/UPC

Source: EPO

In short, the Unitary Patent is now on the verge of becoming reality. The launch of the Unitary Patent is the most significant reform of the European patent system in nearly 50 years, offering greater potential for innovation, investment and technology transfer.

The Unitary Patent will boost Europe's competitiveness by supplementing and strengthening the existing centralised European patent granting system. Together with the Unified Patent Court, it will provide users with a cost-effective option for patent protection and dispute settlement across Europe, thereby stimulating research, development and investment in frontier technology. This represents a vital step towards the realisation of an EU single market for technology.

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

The Reinforced Partnership programme increases the capacity, productivity and quality of the work done by participating offices by promoting the systematic use of the EPO's work products (search and examination), tools and practices. This improves procedures for applicants filing patents internationally, while fostering innovation by helping partner offices provide enhanced services to local applicants. In 2021, the EPO further expanded its geographical reach with the signature of a 10th Reinforced Partnership (RP) agreement with the Saudi Agency of Intellectual Property (SAIP).

Figure 47: Map showing the EPO's geographical reach in 2021

Figure 47: Map showing the EPO`s geographical reach in 2021

Source: EPO

Thanks to the effective continuation of co‑operation in digital mode during the pandemic, the geographical coverage of EPO products increased substantially in 2021, reaching a total of 2.020 billion inhabitants by the end of the year.

Some 50 virtual training events with RP and validation offices in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia were organised in 2021. Together with INPI Brazil, the EPO also launched a project to foster the reuse of its work products in specific technical fields. Overall, there were over 94 200 cases of the reuse of EPO work products by RP partners in 2021.

Paving the way for the signature of a validation agreement, the EPO stepped up its technical co-operation activities with the Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI) in 2021. OAPI is now actively preparing for the introduction of a new search and substantive examination procedure and the EPO is providing special training for its examiners.

In terms of outreach activities, the EPO was involved in developing a new patent engineer master's degree in 2021. It also helped OAPI create an innovation platform aimed at boosting synergies and innovation between universities and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Another highlight was the launch of the ARIPO Regional Patent Examination Training Programme (ARPET) involving some 60 participants from the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) region, Angola and Ethiopia in September.

The Moroccan Industrial and Commercial Property Office (OMPIC) also became the 31st IP office to classify technical documents using the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC). This will enable OMPIC to further integrate the country's growing innovation ecosystems into the global economy.

Figure 48: Reuse flow of EPO products

Figure 48: Reuse flow of EPO products

Source: EPO

Lastly, in June 2021, the Republic of Moldova became the first validation state to join the Federated Register, improving centralised access to patent data for users worldwide.

Fostering multilateral co-operation

To promote co-ordinated responses to global challenges, the EPO actively engages in multilateral co-operation efforts with the IP5 and the Trilateral Offices (the EPO, the Japan Patent Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office). By promoting technical and procedural convergence, such co-operation aims to build a stronger global patent system.

The benefits of multilateral co-operation range from mastering the growing volumes of prior art and facilitating access to global patent documentation to gains in quality, validity and predictability of the granting process by aligning procedures.

With a focus on emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, the IP5 new emerging technologies/artificial intelligence (NET/AI) roadmap offers a blueprint for potential co‑operation opportunities in the areas of statistics, classification, IT and legal matters. These co-operation opportunities are designed to enhance operational efficiency and services through the use of emerging technologies and AI, as well as resolving challenges in patenting these technologies.

The roadmap is the product of the IP5 NET/AI taskforce jointly led by the EPO and the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO). The taskforce was set up to find collective responses to challenges in the field of emerging technologies and artificial intelligence. In 2021, the IP5 heads gave the roadmap the green light, allowing work on its implementation to begin.

Digital transformation in the patent system is another hot topic that calls for a multilateral approach. In November 2020, Trilateral Industry representatives proposed that the Trilateral Offices should lead the way on the issue of e-signatures on patent-related documents. This should help the user community meet the challenges faced in getting documents signed and authenticated during the pandemic. After a series of expert exchanges, the Trilateral Offices agreed to move the topic to the IP5 framework to expand the impact of any measures adopted.

Enhancing co-operation with international organisations and European institutions

Our co-operation with other IP offices, international organisations and European institutions aims to maximise the impact of EPO actions by exploiting synergies, while avoiding the duplication of efforts. Ultimately, effective co-ordination between international organisations benefits European patent system users.

During 2021, the EPO not only built on existing co-operation initiatives but also further developed its co-operation with other partners. In November 2021, the Office signed a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) on co-operation with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The EPO and WIPO renewed their commitments to a patent system that promotes innovation for sustainable economic growth and to co-operating more closely to provide an effective response to the challenges created by new technologies, global health and climate change.

Specifically, their co-operation will focus on continuously improving the PCT system and the digitalisation of its services, the digital transformation, classification and its automation, and training for IP offices from all over the world.

Tangible progress was also made towards implementing the EPO's annual work plan with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) in 2021. A number of joint online seminars were organised, along with the first joint meeting of the National Patent Office Academy contact persons for both offices.

In the framework of the Communication Correspondents Network (CoCoNet), online knowledge sessions and co-ordinated activities continued, along with exchanges of best practices in the area of convergence, IT tools and data protection.

Beyond implementing work plans with partner offices, the EPO also renewed its existing administrative arrangement with the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO) to further improve data exchange and examiners' access to CPVO data.

Beyond these steps, the EPO and the CPVO continued their regular exchanges with a joint workshop focusing on working methods under pandemic conditions and the implications of G 3/19 (non-patentability of plants/animals obtained by means of essentially biological processes).

Dialogue with user associations and representatives

The EPO has always engaged actively and frequently with user representatives from all IP5 regions (business associations and groups of patent professionals), particularly with representatives of European user associations.

In 2021, regular online bilateral meetings continued with the epi, BusinessEurope and several other leading international user associations. Focusing on providing the highest quality of products and services enables the EPO to remain agile and responsive to their needs in a rapidly evolving international patent landscape. The recently restructured and expanded SACEPO Working Party on Quality makes a crucial contribution to these efforts.


The success of the EPO's co-operation with the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) is reflected in the nomination of the EPO as the first and only PCT International Searching Authority in the world - outside China - designated to search PCT applications filed by Chinese nationals and residents in China.

By the end of 2021, this pilot had attracted over a thousand applications, from 200+ companies. Indeed, a growing number of international companies - many of them European - are making use of this initiative when filing PCT applications in China at their national branches.

At their annual bilateral meeting, President Campinos and CNIPA Commissioner Shen Changyu agreed that the pilot will focus on simplifying fee payments, improving electronic communication with users and accelerating the search and examination process in 2022.

The two heads also signed the annual work plan for 2022, as well as the agreement to extend CNIPA's use of EPOQUE Net by another year.

Another topic of major importance for the EPO is Chinese patent documentation. Nowadays, 28% of our patent literature collection comes from China and the trend is clearly increasing year after year.

Seamless data exchange between the EPO and CNIPA contributes to the availability of relevant patent literature for EPO examiners and the public in general. A total of seven million documents have already been classified using the Cooperative Patent Classification by the CNIPA. A remarkable 1.37 million documents were classified in 2021 alone.

Figure 49: Bilateral meeting between the EPO and CNIPA

Figure 49: Bilateral meeting between the EPO and CNIPA

Source: EPO

Improving the quality of Patent Cooperation Treaty services and products

In 2021, the EPO implemented several initiatives to improve its Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) services and products for the benefit of both applicants and offices.

Firstly, the PCT paperless service was progressively extended to all PCT members in 2021. Launched back in 2016, the service ensures the electronic transmission of search copies and other documents from receiving Offices to the EPO as International Searching Authority (ISA) via WIPO. Beyond saving resources and helping reduce CO2 emissions via digitisation, the service also benefits PCT users by supporting the EPO's efforts to issue international search reports on time for the A1 publication [7] at 18 months (98% in 2021).

Secondly, 68 offices had joined the EPO-WIPO fee netting system by the end of 2021, representing over 98% of all search fee transactions. Initially launched as a pilot between the EPO and WIPO in 2018, this service means that participating receiving Offices transfer international search fees to WIPO. All PCT fees that are mutually due are offset with a single transfer per month, making the financial operation of the PCT system more efficient for all offices concerned.

Thirdly, the IP5 pilot on PCT Collaborative Search and Examination (CS&E) continued the evaluation of CS&E files. A total of 468 CS&E files were accepted in the pilot by the end of the operational phase in 2020. In 2021, WIPO surveyed pilot participants, putting it in a position to share user feedback with the IP5 Offices in 2022.

Fourthly, the EPO-led task force on PCT minimum documentation set up by the Meeting of International Authorities (PCT MIA) to review PCT search requirements met twice in 2021. Its work paved the way for the presentation of a consolidated package of changes to the legal and technical framework for both patent collections and non-patent literature at the PCT MIA of June 2022.

Finally, WIPO and the EPO mapped some 25 bilateral PCT data flows in 2021, with a view to streamlining and updating them. The proof of concept based on web services was tested in 2021, with two key data flows to be implemented early in 2022, namely receiving Office and search copy packages.

[7] The A1 document is the first publication of the European patent application.

European Patent Academy

In 2021, the Academy's framework and structures were completely overhauled. Guided by the principles of digitalisation, co-operation, modularity and certification, the Blueprint for the European Patent Academy led to the harmonisation of seven types of educational activities in three formats.

In 2021, the Academy observed record figures of participation and training, with over 23 500 participants enrolled on courses, 15 000 registered regular users of the learning platform, 1 800 000 page views in its learning environment and 1 000 000 additional page views on the e-learning platform. Over 2 200 hours of training were made available in the areas of patent granting, transfer and enforcement, and ten major conferences were organised.

Figure 50: Breakdown of training provided by the Academy by area (in hours)

Figure 50: Breakdown of training provided by the Academy by area (in hours)

Source: EPO

Looking to the future, the Academy also finalised a training package for the Unitary Patent/Unified Patent Court (UPC) and conducted training for UPC candidate judges.

Finally, the Academy designed several e-learning tools to be delivered over the course of 2022, including an automated course builder, an automated patent enforcement comparative tool, a patent litigation case study series, an e-book series and the sequel of the podcast series. For further insights, see the annex report on the European Patent Academy.

Improving access to patent information

Patent information forms the foundation of the patent granting process. By enabling an assessment of whether an invention is novel, it provides the basis for a search report with a written opinion on the patentability of any invention. In other words, it underpins the whole patent system.

With its Espacenet database, the EPO hosts the largest collection of patent literature in the world. Our examiners have access to some 1.3 billion technical records - including 4.1 million standards documents. However, we also support the whole innovation community by making patent information available to all inventors, the general public and everyone active in innovation.

As part of its mission, the Office is fully committed to helping users benefit from the EPO's patent information products and services. In response to user feedback, it launched two initiatives for Espacenet in 2021: a completely new Espacenet help files project to provide insight into Espacenet's functionalities, along with a series of short, explanatory video clips on the EPO's patent information products, or Patent Knowledge Nuggets. The first three Espacenet-related clips were launched in December 2021 on the EPO's YouTube channel.

Figure 51: Usage statistics for patent knowledge products in 2021

Figure 51: Usage statistics for patent knowledge products in 2021

Source: EPO

Patent Knowledge Week

The EPO held its inaugural Patent Knowledge Week event from 2-5 November 2021. This fully digital event, spread over five days, marked a paradigm shift compared to the EPO's previous Patent Information Conference (EPOPIC). The new digital format aimed to make patent knowledge accessible to broader audiences and included a virtual exhibition with 16 commercial providers of patent information products and services. Over 2 200 participants from over 90 different countries took part in the event.

Figure 52: Patent Knowledge Week event

Figure 52: Patent Knowledge Week event
Figure 52: Patent Knowledge Week event

Source: EPO

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