July has seen the publishing of the European Patent Office’s (EPO) 2018 Quality Report. This is the first to be released under the direction of the EPO’s new President: António Campinos, having taken the helm from Benoît Battistelli just over a year ago. This is only the third Quality Report the EPO has published, which forms a part of the ‘Strategic Plan 2023’ which was published early this year.
Delving into the report proper, the EPO saw improvements in timeliness in two of three ‘key’ work areas: search and opposition. The average time for a search report to be issued was within 4.4 months of receipt, well below the target of 6 months. PACE continues to be an effective method of accelerating prosecution, with the median time between PACE request and a communication from the EPO falling to 2.8 months in the 2018 survey.
Similarly, the time for an opposition procedure to be completed fell from 22.4 months to 18.6 months. This ties in with the EPO’s introduction of the ‘fast-track’ opposition procedure which forms a part of the ‘Early Certainty’ program, introduced initially in 2016 by the EPO. In essence, the EPO have streamlined the procedural aspects of an opposition. One of the most noticeable aspects of the new opposition procedure is that extensions of time given to a patentee to respond to the notices of opposition will only be granted in ‘exceptional cases’. Previously, these extensions could typically be relied upon and so this has caused a shift in the way patentees deal with oppositions. Overall, the aim of the Early Certainty program is to bring the total time from expiry of the opposition period to a decision down to 15 months. Happily, the Quality Report shows that at the same time as decreasing the total procedure time, the EPO have also successfully increased user satisfaction in opposition procedures from only 47% of users being satisfied in 2017 to a respectable 71% of users being satisfied in 2018.
As well as improving the timeliness with which the EPO undertakes its work, user satisfaction was also reported to have increased in each of the above key work areas. Only the Formalities section saw a decrease in user satisfaction, and even then only from 89% to 87%.
Turning to the nuts and bolts of examination, added-subject matter continues to be seen as a sticking point, having the lowest user satisfaction score of any of the ‘substantive’ examination issues. Progress has been made however, as those surveyed appeared to be more accepting that the EPO judged things ‘at the right level’. On a more positive note, the EPO reports great strides in user’s satisfaction as regards to the EPO’s examination of computer implemented inventions. In 2015, around 38% of respondents complained that the EPO was too strict when examining computer implemented inventions. Whereas the 2018 report shows this number to have fallen to around 22%.
The EPO does note however, that whilst on the whole user satisfaction has increased, their own internal audits for quality have seen a dip in compliance from 84.7% last year to 76.6% this year. Vice-President DG 1 Stephen Rowan notes that these results have been carefully analysed, and a number of urgent improvement actions are being taken.
Overall, the message is consistent with those given in previous years: the EPO continues to address the backlog of work and has made good progress, particularly with respect to opposition proceedings. At the same time, the perceived quality of work has not suffered as some may have feared. Although a decrease in compliance found by the EPO’s own internal audits could be considered worrisome.