A responsive EPO

07 March 2018

Earlier today at the Bibliothèque Solvay in Brussels – aptly named after a Belgian inventor – I had the honour of presenting the EPO’s results at our annual press conference.  The full report reveals that 2017 was a positive year for innovation and the EPO itself, and I want to draw out some elements here that I consider to be among the most striking.

A vibrant innovation sector, an attractive economy

One of the most anticipated results of the press conference is the number of patent applications that has been received by the EPO over the last year, and to see whether the number has risen or fallen. After the stabilisation of applications in 2016, the demand for patent protection in Europe has indeed showed considerable growth (3.9%) once again. In fact, this increase now means applications have reached an all-time high of over 166,000. We can also draw out two other important points by breaking this figure down further.

Firstly, the European innovation sector specifically has sought more patent protection. The number of applications from within Europe grew by 2.8%, indicating that our home grown inventors are more active.  This is also supported by the number of patent applications per million inhabitants – another measure of an innovative economy. All top eight of the ‘most innovative’ countries are European. And, furthermore, the EU average of 134 applications per million inhabitants has now overtaken the United States (130 per million).

Meanwhile we’ve seen the continuing attractiveness of the European market for inventors from outside Europe, who filed 4.9% more applications than last year. This growing demand for patent protection demonstrates an interest in the European economy and a readiness of non-European companies to invest here.

The EPO can respond to increased demand

The latest 3.9% increase in applications represents a growing workload for the EPO and it is our goal to match this demand with supply. Due to continuing improvements in our working processes, I’m delighted to report that an increased output is something we’ve been able to achieve. During 2017 production rose by 4.6% with the support of advanced IT tools and a newly reorganised patent granting process, among other efficiency measures. The subsequent effect on our ability to deliver patents into the hands of applicants has been marked: in 2017 we granted 10% more European patents than last year (or over 105 000) to individual inventors, research institutions, companies and businesses around the world. At the same time, direct feedback from users external surveys and our own quality metrics confirm continually high satisfaction with the quality of our patents and services.

Taking stock of the situation

These results have had a profound impact on our backlog. Since 2015, we are one of the few large patent offices that is able to process more work than it has coming in. The months of pending work have fallen by 27% since January 2015, making the EPO a more responsive organisation and better placed to face any increases in coming work. If the rise in increasing applications this year – and indeed over the last few years – is any indication to go by, this is a wholly necessary measure to take.

Continued growth from China

Over the last few years the number of applications from Chinese inventors has been growing at a very fast rate. In 2016 applications from China grew by 24.8% and last year there was another increase of 16.6%. Significantly, a Chinese firm – Huawei – has now become the largest applicant at the EPO for the first time ever. The EPO has always worked with its international partners to support intellectual property offices around the world with expertise, IT tools and harmonisation initiatives. For the EPO and the State Intellectual Property Office of China (SIPO), that cooperation stretches back over thirty years and has contributed to more similarities in our patent systems. Our two Offices recently signed a new strategic partnership and, judging by the rapidly increasing applications from China, it is clearly a productive partnership. It also demonstrates exactly why the EPO is seeking greater cooperation in the course of this year with many other countries, as I reported in my last blog.

So where to from here?

Applications are up from both within and outside Europe, European countries are among the ‘most innovative’ and there is no reason to believe that the growth in patent activity is set to slow in the near future. So are we prepared for fluctuations or growth in patent demand in the future?

As we look to the horizon, the EPO’s own results reveal a more agile, productive organisation, ready to respond effectively to any future changes in the patent system. Our ongoing quality initiatives and the coming reduction in some of our fees also show that we are also able to do so while delivering improved quality and controlled costs. Those same results also indicate that no matter how dynamic our innovation sectors, no matter the level of demand, the EPO is well prepared to support the Ernest Solvays of tomorrow.

If you want to hear more of my thoughts on the major developments at the EPO in 2017, I explain them here in a special video foreword to the annual results report.

Categories: Patents, The EPO

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