Survey: European patents have quality problems

Productivity demands mean the standard of European patents is not what it should be, according to staff at the European Patent Office

The majority of staff at the European Patent Office (EPO) feel they do not have enough time for patent examinations and back-up examinations, according to a survey of 1,300 patent examiners conducted by the staff union.

These results come only a few weeks after the EU voted through controversial changes to the Software Patents Directive, widening the degree to which software could be patented.

The union survey, reported in Nature, found that three-quarters of staff agreed that productivity demands from EPO's managers do not allow them "to enforce the quality standards set by the European Patent Convention". Two-thirds agreed that they lacked the time to do back-up examinations, an internal quality control, "in a satisfactory manner".

A survey conducted by the EPO itself concurred with the findings of the union survey. It found that of 730 staff, only 9 percent believed that management was "actively involved in improving quality".

According to Nature, the number of patent applications processed by the Munich-based office have more than doubled since 1995. The number of hours spent examining each patent claim has more than halved since 1992, from 23.8 hours in 1992 to 11.8 hours in 2001. The increased volume of applications and the consequent reduction in time spent on each claim is likely to have reduced the quality of patents in the last decade. For instance, if a thorough search for prior art has not been undertaken, a patent could be granted for something that lacks sufficient 'novelty'.

This reduction in patent quality could have serious implications if the draft EU Software Patents Directive becomes law. The vague wording of the draft has been criticised as this could lead to patent warfare dominated by large companies, already the situation in the US software industry.

Greg Aharonian, editor of the Internet Patent News Service, on Tuesday stated: "Well, are none of you surprised that…as EPO workloads increase, EPO patent quality is quickly dropping to PTO [US Patent and Trademark Office] levels?"

"Industry is still signalling that they don't care about patent quality, despite many lies to the contrary," Aharonian said.

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