27th Sep 2023

Europe faces surge in patent applications

The European Patent Office went on a one-day strike over disagreement on a 'quality or quantity' issue at a time when patent applications are increasing and becoming more complex.

Patent examiners at the Munich-based patent office (EPO) held a staff rally on Wednesday (25 October) due to concerns over the implementation of a new system in 2007 to assess the work of the examiners.

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The EPO management wants better results and the patent examiners fear that quantity will reign over quality in the new system.

"The essential issue is, how can we better secure quality in patents," said EPO spokesman Rainer Osterwalder. "There is a difference in opinions between the management and patent examiners [on this]."

A surge in applications

The concern comes at a time when Europe is facing a surge of patent applications from third country companies trying to protect their inventions on the European market.

"There is clearly a surge in patent applications from non-member states," Mr Osterwalder told EUobserver, adding that the divide is currently 50-50.

"Especially South Korea, China and India are getting very active in applying," he said. "The big wave still seems to be coming, but it is starting now."

Mr Osterwalder explained that there is, for example, clear determination in China to strengthen its intellectual property rights.

"China has a European style patent system and the legislation has European standards," Mr Osterwalder said. "What they miss is the court enforcement."

He added that Chinese companies are increasingly realising that they must stand up for their own Intellectual property rights and are stepping up legal action both at home and abroad, particularly in the US.

South Korea, he explained, is still the top non-member country applying for patents at the EPO office. The Asian country's strong IP policy is very much due to its world market companies Samsung and LG.

Tougher competition

The EPO office expects an annual increase of 5-7 percent in patent applications over the next few years resulting in tougher competition and more complex requests.

Mr Osterwalder said that EPO's patent examiners face not only more applications, but also more pages per application as requests for patents more often overlap in technical terms.

"If you've got more competitors, you've got to find a niche," he said about European companies or individuals wanting to apply for patents.

"Competition will be tougher," he said and "pressure grows on the examiners."

In 2004, 178,600 European patent applications were filed compared with 167,400 in 2003. The EPO office expects to reach 200,000 filed applications in 2006.

European Patent

Although no single international patents currently exist, the office has since 1977 granted European patents, which are bundled with national patents subject to national grant procedures.

The EU is not part of the EPO although all EU member states - except for Malta - are members of the European Patent Organisation. Bulgaria, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Romania, Switzerland and Turkey are also members.

Since the 1970s, there have been parallel discussions towards the creation of an EU Community Patent. It came to a stalemate in 2004 after EU ministers failed to agree on various issues, and mainly on the question of time delays for translations claims.

However, in January this year the European Commission launched a public consultation on how to create an EU-wide system of patent protection.

According to the commission, the consultation showed that there is widespread support for the community patent but differences on how to make it work remain.

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