13 February 2017
This week I am pleased to report that the EPO recently hosted the first meeting of an additional new committee to work specifically on quality. Although the EPO has been holding meetings of the Standing Advisory Committee before the European Patent Office (SACEPO) since 1979, this is the very first time that a sub-committee has been formed to address this particular aspect of our work.
SACEPO has already proven to be an important link to our users because it is a direct interface between representatives of our users and of the EPO. The committee and its sub-committees are comprised of nominees from industry (nominated by BUSINESSEUROPE) and the patent profession (nominated by epi), as well as recognised experts in the field of industrial property law. At this recent sub-committee, we welcomed representatives from both from within Europe and as far afield as Japan, Korea and the United States. With a multitude of users present, the discussions provided useful input on quality-related issues. Items such as our Early Certainty initiative, quality in examination and EPO PCT products were all discussed in a constructive exchange of views that will now be analysed to help us assess ways to improve quality yet further.
There are already a great number of measures to protect what we have achieved over the last forty years in the field of quality; a clear legal framework, highly trained examiners, three examiners per application and an ISO 9001-certified patent granting process, among others. Those quality levels are also constantly monitored. Controls and quality checks throughout the procedure (formalities checks, first examiner, examining division, chairman, team manager, director, etc.) ensure that only conforming products are delivered to the applicant and the public. Quality audits are regularly carried out, and last year they revealed that ambitious targets in search and opposition were surpassed.
But protecting quality is not enough. Our task, in line with both our reputation as a leader in this field – and our obligation to our users – is to continue to make constant improvements. The SACEPO sub-committee on quality was just one and there are other far-reaching actions foreseen for 2017, as we continue to innovate in the field of patent quality.
Firstly, we will be ensuring that our quality policy is in line with real world developments. Currently preparations are underway to align our ISO 9001 Quality Management System with the very latest 2015 version of the international ISO standard. Similarly, provision is being made for the unitary patent administration process to also conform to these latest ISO 9001 quality requirements when it arrives later this year. 2017 will also be the very first time in which quality will be monitored regularly at the very highest level. From now on the Office will present an annual quality report to our member states in the Administrative Council, providing yet another check on the status of our progress.
In addition, we will be building upon our foundations with more investment in examiner training, new and improved IT tools, more ambitious internal quality targets and constantly expanding data coverage through agreements with other offices. The last of these has proved particularly important. I have heard first-hand how greater access to Asian prior art is valued by users for helping to ensure quality. With data exchange agreements in place with the large Asian offices, such as JPO, KIPO and SIPO, access to Asian prior art is an area in which the EPO continues to excel – to the point where 27% of all citations now originate from Asian prior art.
Quality is therefore constantly scrutinised and improved and that is welcomed by our users; it is a priority for the EPO precisely because it is a priority for our applicants. “Patent quality always has to be paramount”, said Brian Klein of Boeing at a recent EPO management meeting in The Hague, which was dedicated to the theme of quality and which invited some of our users to voice their expectations and discuss how we can improve further.
Is our approach of continually improving working? Feedback by an independent survey last year and our User Satisfaction Surveys indicates that it is. After all, Quality is in our DNA at the EPO but our culture is to continually look for further improvements.