The European Patent Office (EPO), one of the largest Patent Offices worldwide, currently employs more than 6,700 persons, of which more than 3,700 are located in Munich and more than 2,600 in the Hague.

With such a large number of employees, it is only natural that the EPO should make an effort to streamline and simplify its work as much as possible, without thereby prejudicing the quality of its services.

And in fact the EPO takes pride in the results of the Annual IP benchmarking survey which was conducted in 2012 by IAM and Thomson Reuters using a sample of 700 patent attorneys working in private practice or in industry. The feedback was very positive, considering that of those in private practice, 68% stated that the EPO’s quality is “very good” or “excellent”, while of those in industry, 92% stated that the EPO’s quality is either “good”, “very good” or “excellent”.

According to the EPO, the components of its patent quality policy are highly skilled examiners, state-of-the-art searches, thorough procedures and review processes, and, last but not least, quality controls and an ongoing commitment to improvement.

All of this proceeds side by side with an effort to streamline and simply the EPO’s work as much as possible, e.g. by avoiding potentially unnecessary duplications and by benefiting from work already done on the same patent family by other Patent Offices.

It is in this context that the EPO, together with the other Intellectual Property Offices of the IP5, i.e. the group of the 5 largest Intellectual Property Offices worldwide, very recently announced that they have agreed to launch a Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) pilot program involving all five Offices, starting in January 2014. The Offices involved, in addition to the EPO, are the Japan Patent Office (JPO), the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO), the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO), and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

According to information provided by the EPO, the program will use both PCT and national work products. The stated goal, of course, is that of improving the accelerated handling of patent applications. In fact, according to the official announcement, it is believed that this pilot program will leverage fast-track patent examination procedures already in place at the IP5 Offices, with a view to enabling applicants to obtain patents faster and more efficiently.

As is known, there are already PPH arrangements which operate between the IP5 Offices. In its announcement, the EPO stated that these PPH arrangements will be integrated in the new comprehensive scheme. However, under the new comprehensive program, applicants whose patent claims have been held to be patentable by one IP5 Office will be able to ask for accelerated processing of their corresponding applications before any of the the other IP5 Offices. In addition, it will also be possible for the Offices concerned to benefit from the already-existing work results to the extent that this will be practicable. It will be possible to submit the request for handling of cases under the comprehensive new PPH program with any of the IP5 Offices.

If successful, this program will allow the EPO (as well as the other participating Offices) to benefit from the work already performed by other Offices, thereby potentially speeding up the grant of European patents, thus allowing applicants to obtain commensurate protection for their inventions in a more timely manner.

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