24 June 2008

Fewer EU Patents: Good - and Bad

First the good news:

Last year, the European Patent Office (EPO) issued far fewer patents than in 2006. The Munich patent authorities have announced that they approved exactly 54,699 patent applications for commercial protection, 12.9 per cent fewer than in the previous year. EPO President Alison Brimelow says the drop is the result of a new focus on the quality of patents rather than quantity; patent applications actually increased by 3.9 per cent to 140,700. She said her office is making sure that the temporary monopoly rights granted are actually relevant. She says the figures show that the EPO is headed in the right direction.

Well, maybe, but heise online also has this to say:

Nonetheless, the EPO staff's morale seems to have never been lower. A survey conducted among several thousand staff members found that only 4 per cent have faith in the management board. Only 6 per cent said they were satisfied with their direct superiors and the president. The auditors have also long been complaining that they are chronically overworked.

Last April, Brimelow herself complained that the backlog of work at the EPA and the other two largest patent offices in the US and Japan was only growing and could no longer be handled by current staff.

So fewer patents may well simply be the result of the fact that the EPO is getting swamped, and that quality will actually go down, not up. In any case, the EPO's own cries for help demonstrate that the idea of giving the EPO any more power through a unified European patent system is madness.


Anonymous said...

"In any case, the EPO's own cries for help demonstrate that the idea of giving the EPO any more power through a unified European patent system is madness."

Can you develop further ? Why is it giving so much more power to EPO ?
I hear arguments in opposite direction, i.e. stressing that a unified European patent system would help to improve quality and reduce the backlog of pending patent applications.

Glyn Moody said...

Currently, each EU country has its own rules regarding what can, and cannot be patented. For example, the UK has fairly strict rules against patenting software. If the EPO takes over, it will apply a uniform approach; the question is, which?

To see what happens when you make a patent office into the judges about what should and shouldn't be patentable (which is what is being proposed in Europe), look at what happened in the US.

There, the court responsible for adjudicating these matters was naturally filled by experts – patent lawyers. But patent lawyers have a tendency to expand patentability – it's what they do. They don't worry about – or even accept – the concerns of programmers, say, who know from first-hand experience that a single software patent can apply to practically every program ever written (progress bars, anyone?)

If the EPO took over, it is almost certain that we would see a slide towards the US system – and its current madness, where people can patent practically anything, however obvious or trivial, and patent trolls can hold entire industries to ransom without ever aiming to produce - let along advance - anything.

This is a travesty of the patent system, which is designed to encourage innovation, not litigation.

Anonymous said...

The EPO is not crying for help but on the contrary, push forward the idea that quality is better than quantity: more patents kill patents. What is missing in this article is the number of refused applications!
The low morale among EPO employees has nothing to do with this but with attempts to alter or reduce the working conditions...
Not going to a unified European patent with the recognized quality of the EPO work would be madness.

Glyn Moody said...

Nobody is suggesting that quality isn't something worth having.

The problem is that the EPO already has very relaxed view of what is patentable as far as software is concerned; a unified patent under its aegis would only weaken the European stand against software patents yet further.

Anonymous said...

Being myself an EPO examiner, working in a technical field where 99% of the application are computer implemented, I respectfully disagree with this "relaxed" view, in particular if you compare the EPO granted/refused patents to those from other major patent offices...
There is currently an attempt to "raise the bar" of inventive step at the EPO, so you can expect more refusals or an increase of the quality (legal certainty, complete and clear disclosure of the invention) of the granted patents.
From my experience at the EPO and my knowledge of the UK patent office (from which the former president is our current president, mind you), the second is closer to the USPTO than we are...

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for the feedback - it's good to have the perspective of someone actually working there.

I'm delighted to hear that the EPO is raising the bar, particularly for areas like computer-implemented inventions. It seems to me (as an outsider) that too often the "computer-implemented" bit is an excuse for clever patent lawyers to sneak things through: it's great if people such as yourself are applying more rigour.

I hope that includes prior art, which tends to abound for anything to do with software - a fact conveniently overlooked by those applying for patents....