06 September 2011
The summer break is traditionally a quiet period for industry and for patents as well, with August usually the month which produces the lowest number of patent filings. However, this summer has seen an unusually high incidence of patent-related activities, including the selling of a mega-portfolio of patents and the launch of major international legal disputes in the telecommunications field. Newspaper reports on these activities have focused on the patents involved, frequently questioning their role as a real incentive for innovation and highlighting their possible negative impact on free competition.
Being the head of a patent office does not mean in my view that I should automatically consider those questions as totally irrelevant. In fact, I am of the opinion that a patent should represent a good balance between the right of the inventor to obtain fair protection for his investments and the interests of society at large in the wide dissemination of new technologies. This balance is defined by the legislator but implemented by patent offices. That is why I have always considered it a matter of priority for patent offices to improve the quality of granted patents and the quality of their examination procedures. Of course, the situation is not the same everywhere, and differences between legal frameworks and practices do exist.
If the patent reform currently being discussed in the US goes through, it will help bring the American and European systems closer together. However, some differences will most probably remain, in particular with regard to the scope of patentable matter. Public opinion in Europe is extremely sensitive when it comes to topics such as biotechnology, sometimes described as “life patenting”. Conscious of the importance of this issue, the EPO has a large group of highly qualified examiners who deal with biotech applications in a very rigorous manner. So, for example, while the European patent granting rate is around 42% overall, for biotech inventions it is below 30%.
Improving quality is an ongoing process, and the Office is committed to drawing up a quality road map which will help us to foster our role as a selective filter for quality patents.