EPO u-turn is good news for UK patent holders

In a recent about-turn, the European Patent Office (EPO) has announced that it will participate in a pilot scheme with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to accelerate patent applications. This follows the permanent implementation of the Patent Prosecution Highway (the successful fast-track pilot between the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the USPTO). While the details of the EPO’s comparable pilot are yet to be revealed, its surprise decision to participate in such a scheme could well usher in a new era of cost reduction, increased harmonisation and pragmatic cooperation. However, questions are being asked about the impact this move will have in the United Kingdom.

The EPO’s involvement means the United Kingdom’s own differentiation is lessened, since the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) was already taking part in the Patent Prosecution Highway pilot. In practice, this pilot has largely worked in favour of UK applicants, with the UKIPO’s comparative speed meaning a number of UK applications have benefited from being fast-tracked (rather than vice versa). Meanwhile, the EPO resisted entering into the pilot due to concerns that patent quality would be compromised.

However, looking more broadly, this newfound cooperation from the EPO can only be a good thing for UK rights holders. The potential benefits of greater harmonisation far outweigh the loss of the slim advantage the UKIPO might have enjoyed while the EPO was not involved in the scheme.

In a globalised business world, the advantages of a level playing field are immense and will have a dramatic impact on costs at the filing stage. Cooperation between offices will bring about far greater efficiency in terms of time and spend throughout the filing process, helping to drive down patent backlogs across the major world offices. As patent applications continue to place demands on workload, this level of pragmatism – and the resultant cost reduction that will accompany it – will provide a clear benefit to all.

It is also worth noting that this is an area where cost reduction is far easier to accomplish, unlike large-scale initiatives designed to bring down the costs of enforcement, which have repeatedly failed. There also appears little threat to patent quality, in view of how successful the pilot has already proved to date. In any event, this problem is already diminishing, particularly at the USPTO – which has traditionally encountered the most criticism.

Between them, the EPO, the JPO and the USPTO grant over three-quarters of the world’s patents. Such a majority is in itself an argument in favour for greater harmonisation, to the benefit of all – including UK innovation.

In terms of the future of the UKIPO, further moves may result in the UKIPO and the EPO moving more in line with one another (just as the United Kingdom’s trademark procedure has become much more aligned). The UKIPO’s reputation for cost-effectiveness and efficiency should remain secure, while the initiative also offers an attractive route for those seeking swift protection in addition to filing with the EPO. As such, for the United Kingdom, this unusual move from the EPO is a welcome sign of progress.


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