Grant procedure before the European Patent Office
The grant procedure before the European Patent Office (EPO) is an ex parte, administrative procedure, which includes the filing of a European patent application, the examination of formalities, the establishment of a search report, the publication of the application, its substantive examination, and the grant of a patent, or the refusal of the application, in accordance with the legal provisions of the European Patent Convention (EPC). The grant procedure is carried out by the EPO under the supervision of the Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation. The patents granted in accordance with the EPC are called European patents.
In other words, the grant procedure before the EPO is the procedure leading to the grant of a European patent or to the refusal to grant a European patent. The procedure starts with the filing of an application and ends with the grant of a European patent or the refusal of the patent application by the EPO, or the withdrawal of the application by the applicant, or its deemed withdrawal. The prosecution of European patent applications until grant typically takes several years.
Main procedural steps
European patent applications can be filed at the EPO at Munich, Germany, at The Hague, Netherlands, at Berlin, Germany, or "if the law of a Contracting State so permits, at the central industrial property office or other competent authority of that State". This latter provision is important in some countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, it used to be required to obtain clearance for all inventions but now it is only prohibited for a UK resident to file an overseas patent application for inventions in certain sensitive technical areas without obtaining clearance through the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office first. European patent applications cannot be validly filed at the EPO in Vienna, Austria.
Within one month after the filing of an application, a filing fee and a search fee must be paid. Additional fees may also be due depending on the size of the application and the number of claims. Namely, if the application comprises more than 35 pages, an additional fee is due (of 12 Euros, as of April 2009) for the 36th and each subsequent page. Furthermore, if the application contains more than fifteen claims at the time of filing, claim fees are due. As of April 2009, a claims fee of 200 Euros is due for the 16th and each subsequent claim up to the limit of 50, and a claims fee of 500 Euros for the 51st and each subsequent claim.
European patent applications must be filed in one of the three official languages of the EPO, in English, French or German. However, some applicants[dated info] are allowed to file European patent applications in "admissible non-EPO languages", provided that a translation in English, French or German is filed in due time, "within three months after the filing of the European patent application, but no later than thirteen months after the date of priority". In the case of a European divisional application, or in the relatively rare case of a new European patent application under Article 61(1)(b) EPC, "the translation may be filed at any time within one month of the filing of such application". The official language of the EPO in which the application is filed, or the language used when the application was filed in an "admissible non-EPO language", is used as the language of the proceedings.
The examination of whether the requirements for the accordance of a filing date  and other formal requirements are satisfied is carried out by the EPO, in accordance with Article 90 EPC. If a date of filing cannot be accorded, the application is not be dealt with as a European patent application. If the European patent application has been accorded a date of filing, but if there are other formal deficiencies, the applicant is offered an opportunity to correct these deficiencies. If the deficiencies are not corrected, the European patent application is refused, unless a different legal consequence applies.
Oral proceedings may exceptionally take place before the Receiving Section, to give an opportunity to the applicant to be heard on an issue involving formality requirements.
Publication and provisional rights
A European patent application is published as soon as possible "after the expiry of a period of eighteen months from the date of filing or, if priority has been claimed, from the date of priority", or "at the request of the applicant, before the expiry of that period". While early publication of a European patent application can be requested, there are no provisions in the EPC which would permit any delaying of the publication. There is indeed an overriding public interest in the timely publication of the application.
As from its publication, a European patent application may confer to the applicant some provisional rights in the contracting states designated in the application. These rights include at least the right for the applicant to "claim compensation reasonable in the circumstances from any person who has used the invention in that State in circumstances where that person would be liable under national law for infringement of a national patent." In relation to some contracting states however, a translation of the claims is required for the provisional rights to come into effect.
The Search Divisions of the EPO establish search reports, named "European search reports", on the basis of the claims, "with due regard to the description and any drawings". The European search report established for a patent application is transmitted to the applicant together with copies of any cited documents.
- "The search is an essential element of the grant procedure, being designed to identify prior art relevant to the application. The intention is to make it possible to determine, on the basis of the documents mentioned in the search report, whether and to what extent the invention is patentable (...). Knowledge of the prior art forms the basis for examination of the application by the examining divisions. It is also important for applicants, giving them a basis for deciding whether to continue prosecuting their applications and have them examined. Lastly, it is also important for the public and especially for competitors, enabling them to gain an idea of the scope of any protection that might be granted." 
Before the search, communications between the search division and the applicant were not foreseen, before April 1, 2010. However, under new Rules 62a and 63 EPC, if there are more than one independent claim per claim category (and if the provisions of Rule 43(2) EPC are considered not to be met) or if the search division considers that it is impossible to carry out a meaningful search based on the subject-matter claimed, communications between the search division and the applicant are possible. Under Rule 137(1) EPC however, no amendments to the application can be made before the search "unless otherwise provided".
Along with the search report, a search opinion is also established. The search opinion and the search report form together the so-called extended European search report. Before April 1, 2010, a response to the search opinion was optional. Currently however, under new Rule 70a EPC, a reply to the search opinion is mandatory, within six months "after the date on which the European Patent Bulletin mentions the publication of the European search report" (which is also the time limit for requesting examination). If no reply is filed to the search opinion, the application is deemed to be withdrawn. The search opinion is therefore a conventional office action with a given time period to respond.
Designation of States and request for examination
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Under Article 79(1) EPC, all the Contracting States party to the EPC at the time of filing of a European patent application are deemed to be designated in the request for grant of a European patent, i.e. upon filing of the application. Under Article 79(2) EPC and Rule 39(1) EPC, designation fees must be paid within six months of the date on which the European Patent Bulletin mentions the publication of the European search report. For applications filed on or after April 1, 2009, the designation fee is 555 Euros whatever the number of designated Contracting States.
|Legal requirements applicable to European patent applications and patents|
|Note: The above list of legal requirements is not exhaustive.|
The substantive examination of European patent applications includes the examination of patentability of the claimed invention, i.e. whether the invention is not excluded as unpatentable subject-matter by policy, whether the invention is new, involves an inventive step, and is susceptible of industrial application. In addition, the invention must be sufficiently disclosed in the application, and the claims must be clear and concise.
Unless the application is directly ready for grant, communications under Article 94(3) EPC are issued by the Examining Division and notified to the applicant or the appointed representative. In such communications, the Examining Division invites the applicant to reply within a given period, by correcting the "deficiencies noted and [amending] the description, claims and drawings", where appropriate. If amendments are filed, the amendments must not extend the content of the application as filed, or, in other words, there must not be any added subject-matter. In that context, the applicant is master of its own application in that the decision to amend or not, and how to amend the application, is a decision of the applicant alone (although the Examining Division may apply pressure to have amendments made).
During the examination phase, oral proceedings may take place at the request of the EPO or at the request of the applicant. They are held before the Examining Division itself, in Munich or the Hague, and are not public, in contrast to oral proceedings in opposition, which are public unless very particular circumstances apply. The right to oral proceedings is a specific and codified part of the procedural right to be heard. A decision is often taken at the end of the oral proceedings.
Communication under Rule 71(3) EPC and grant, or refusal
If the Examining Division considers that a European patent may be granted, it issues a communication under Rule 71(3) EPC. By issuing such a communication, the Examining Division informs the applicant of the intention to grant a patent based on the prosecuted application. The claims must then be translated in the other two official languages of the European Patent Office, and fees for grant and publishing must be paid. If the applicant pays the fees for grant and publishing and files the translation of the claims in due time, he is deemed to have been approved the text intended for grant. If not, the European patent application is deemed to be withdrawn. The time limit for paying the fees for grant and publishing, and for filing the translation of the claims is four months. This time limit is non-extendable.
The decision of the Examining Division to grant a European patent takes effect on the date on which the mention of the grant is published in the European Patent Bulletin. The Examining Division is then bound by its final decision on an application, which can be set aside only following an admissible, allowable appeal. The decision to grant ends the examination procedure. Nevertheless, linguistic errors, errors of transcription and obvious mistakes in the decision to grant may be corrected, as in any decision of the European Patent Office.
In contrast, if the Examining Division considers that the application does not meet the provisions of the European Patent Convention, the application is refused. As mentioned above, as any other first instance decision terminating the proceedings, a decision to refuse an application is appealable. If an appeal is lodged against the decision of refusal and if the Examining Division regards the appeal to be admissible and well founded, the Examining Division has to rectify its decision. This is a so-called "interlocutory revision".
Once granted, a European patent is enforceable on a country-by-country basis. In addition, once the 9-month opposition period is terminated, third parties wanting to invalidate a European patent must institute revocation proceedings in each country where the patent is in force. In addition, once a European patent is granted or more precisely within three months (or six months for Ireland) from the date of grant, the patent must be translated in an official language of each country in which the patentee wants patent protection. If the translation of the European is not provided to the national patent office within the prescribed time limit, the patent "shall be deemed to be void ab initio in that State".
Additional considerations and special cases
Renewal fees are payable to the European Patent Office in respect of pending European patent applications in respect of the third year from the date of filing. These fees are paid in advance of the year in which they are due (such that the renewal fee for the third year falls due two years from the date of filing) and fall due on the last day of the month containing the anniversary of the date of filing.
Observations by third parties
After the publication of a European patent application, anyone can file observations regarding the patentability of the invention which is the subject of the application or, after grant, subject of the patent. This is a form of public participation in the examination of patent applications. A person filing observations during examination proceedings does not however become party to the proceedings. This notably means that such person has no right to attend oral proceedings before the Examining Division, which are not public. This contrasts with the filing of a post-grant opposition, wherein the opponent becomes party to the proceedings, therefore acquiring, notably, the right to be heard before any decision is taken. Observations by third parties, which must be filed in writing, may be filed by post or online.
A divisional application of a European patent application can be filed, as long as the latter is still pending, and subject to specific time limits. The specific rules regarding the time limits for filing divisional applications were significantly amended in 2010. European divisional applications must be filed directly or by post with one of the filing offices of the EPO, i.e. at the European Patent Office at Munich, The Hague, or Berlin. It may also be filed using the so-called epoline online filing software. The filing of a European divisional application with a national authority has no effect in law.
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The programme for accelerated prosecution of European patent applications, or PACE programme, "enables applicants who want their applications processed rapidly to obtain the search report, the first examination report and any communication under Rule 71(3) EPC within tight deadlines". A written request ("PACE request") must be filed. The PACE requests are excluded from public inspection, provided that they are filed on the appropriate form or on a separate sheet of paper. As of 2009, accelerated processing under PACE was reported to be requested in only 6.3% of files. An enquiry by the applicant to know when the next communication is to be expected is not regarded as a request for accelerated prosecution.
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Under the so-called "Bringing Examination and Search Together" programme or BEST programme (also referred to as "BEST system"), the EPO's examination procedure was reorganized in 1990, with the primary examiner of the Examining Division being the examiner who had carried out the search.
Withdrawal of an application
Withdrawal of an application is the gravest procedural step that can be taken, since the application becomes dead without possibility of revival. A European patent application may be withdrawn at any time by the applicant, except when a third party has initiated proceedings concerning entitlement to the grant of the European patent. One reason for withdrawing an application may be to avoid its publication, if for instance it has been decided to keep the invention secret instead of applying for a patent. To avoid publication, the withdrawal must occur before "the termination of the technical preparations for publication". Another reason for withdrawing an application may be to obtain a refund of the search fee and/or examination fee, if it has been decided not to pursue the application further. According to the EPO Guidelines,
- "The application may be withdrawn by means of a signed declaration, which should be unqualified and unambiguous (...). The applicant is bound by an effective declaration of withdrawal (...), but may make it subject to the proviso that the content of the application is not made known to the public."
The Boards of Appeal have dealt in a great number of decisions with the question of whether the withdrawal of a European patent application can be retracted, because it was made erroneously. In particular, the Boards have held that the "withdrawal of a European patent application can only be retracted as long as the public has not been officially informed about the withdrawal". In other words, in the interests of legal certainty, it is generally too late to request retraction of a notice of withdrawal after the withdrawal has been registered and notified to the public in the European Patent Bulletin, since in that case the retraction of withdrawal would adversely affect the public interest or the interests of third parties.
Responsibilities within the EPO
An Examining Division is normally made up of three technically qualified examiners: a Primary Examiner, who draws up the search report and conducts most of the correspondence (written or on the telephone) with the applicant; a Chairman who has overall control of the examination of the application and who chairs any oral proceedings that are held; and a Second Examiner who is responsible for taking the minutes of any oral proceedings. All three members have a vote on any formal issues that have to be decided, including the main decision of whether to allow or refuse the patent application. If the Examining Division is augmented with a legally qualified member, so that the Division consists of four members, then the Chairman has a casting vote.
Notes and references
- Article 90 EPC
- Article 91 EPC
- Article 92 EPC
- Article 93 EPC
- Article 96 EPC
- Article 97(2) EPC
- Article 97(1) EPC
- Article 4(3) EPC
- Article 2(1) EPC
- The application may for instance be deemed withdrawn under Article 96(3) EPC, if the applicant fails to respond to a communication of the Examining Division in due time.
- Richard Howson, Points and prizes, or how to Play Your Cards Right at the European Patent Office, Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, 2007 2(3):170-173; doi:10.1093/jiplp/jpl237
- Article 75(1)(a) EPC
- Decision of the President of the European Patent Office dated 10 May 1989 on the setting up of a Filing Office in the Berlin sub-office of the European Patent Office, OJ 1989, 218.
- Article 75(1)(b) EPC
- United Kingdom Patents Act 1977, ss 22-23: Security and safety.
- Notice from the European Patent Office dated 4 March 1992 concerning the Vienna sub-office, OJ 1992, 183, Important Notice.
- Article 78(2) EPC
- Article 2.1a of the Rules relating to Fees.
- Rule 45(1) EPC (previously Rule 31(1) EPC 1973)
- Article 2.15 of the Rules relating to Fees.
- Article 14(1) EPC
- Article 14(2) EPC
- Rule 6(1) EPC[dated info] .
- See Article 80 EPC and Rule 40 EPC.
- Article 90(2) EPC
- Article 90(3) and (4) EPC
- Article 90(5) EPC
- Decision T 689/05 of 7 September 2010, point 5.17, referring notably to Article 116(1),(2) EPC 1973 and Rule 71(1) EPC 1973.
- Article 93(1) EPC
- See for instance Decision J 2/08 (27 May 2009) of the Legal Board of Appeal of the EPO, Reasons 60 and 61.
- Article 67 EPC
- Article 67(2) EPC
- Article 67(3) EPC
- Article 92(1) EPC
- Article 92(2) EPC
- Board of Appeal of the EPO, Decision of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01 dated 20 October 2006 T 1242/04 – 3.5.01, Reasons 8.2, OJ EPO 7/2007, p. 421
- Decision of the Administrative Council of 25 March 2009 amending the Implementing Regulations to the European Patent Convention (CA/D 3/09), Article 2(1).
- Decision of the Admin. Council, CA/D 3/09, Articles 1.1 and 1.2.
- Rule 137(1) EPC
- Rule 62(1) EPC
- Rule 62 EPC, see title
- EPO web site, Notice from the European Patent Office dated 15 October 2009 concerning amendments to the Implementing Regulations to the European Patent Convention (EPC), 15 October 2009, point 5.1.1.
- Decision of the Admin. Council, CA/D 3/09, Articles 1.5.
- Decision of the Admin. Council, CA/D 3/09, Articles 1.5. and Rule 70(1) EPC.
- New Rule 70a(3) EPC.
- Article 2.3 of the Rules relating to Fees applicable as from 1 April 2012 (Supplement to OJ EPO 3/2012).
- Article 52(1) EPC
- Article 52(2) and (3) EPC and Article 53 EPC
- Article 54 EPC
- Article 56 EPC
- Article 57 EPC
- Article 83 EPC
- Article 84 EPC
- Rule 130(1) EPC (formerly Rule 81(1) EPC 1973)
- Article 94(3) EPC (formerly Article 96(2) EPC 1973)
- Rule 71(1) EPC (formerly Rule 51(2) EPC 1973)
- Article 123(2) EPC
- EPO Board of Appeal decision T 1099/06, Reasons 6.
- Article 116(1) EPC
- Article 18(2)(third sentence) EPC
- Decision T 1012/03 of December 1, 2006, catchword 2.
- Article 116(3) EPC
- Article 116(4) EPC
- "The right to oral proceedings according to Article 116 EPC is a specific and codified part of the procedural right to be heard according to Article 113(1) EPC." in Decision T 1012/03 of December 1, 2006, Reasons 25.
- Article 106 EPC
- Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section c.v.1.1 , "Text for approval".
- Rule 71(3) EPC, formerly Rule 51(4) EPC 1973.
- Special edition No. 5 OJ EPO, page 122.
- Article 97(3) EPC
- Decision T 493/08 of the Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.02 of 29 September 2009, Reasons 6.2.1, third paragraph.
- Rule 140 EPC
- Article 97(2) EPC
- Article 109 EPC
- "Any infringement of a European patent shall be dealt with by national law." Article 64(3) EPC
- Article 65 EPC
- Article 86(1) EPC
- Rule 51 EPC (previously Rule 37 EPC 1973).
- Article 115 EPC
- Rule 114 EPC
- Decision of the President of the European Patent Office dated 10 May 2011 concerning the filing of third party observations under Article 115 EPC by means of an online form, EPO Official Journal 7/2011, p. 418; Notice from the European Patent Office dated 10 May 2011 concerning the filing of third party observations under Article 115 EPC by means of an online form, EPO OJ 7/2011, p. 420.
- Rule 36(1) EPC, formerly Rule 25(1) EPC 1973.
- Rule 36(2) EPC
- Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section a.iv.1.3.1 "Where and how to file a divisional application?".
- Notice from the European Patent Office dated 14 July 2007 concerning the programme for accelerated prosecution of European patent applications – "PACE", Special edition No. 3, OJ EPO 2007, F.1, p. 102 (pdf, 1 MB)
- University College London, Lecture, London, 8 November 2010, "How can Europe be a key player at the global level in the patent field, and which role should the EPO play ?, Benoît Battistelli, President, European Patent Office, page 3. Consulted on November 12, 2010.
- Handbook of quality procedures before the European Patent Office, European Patent Office, February 2012, p. 25.
- Decision J 3/09 of the Legal Board of Appeal of 28 May 2010, point 5.8.
- Decision J 4/03 of 9 September 2004, Reasons 12.
- Rule 15 EPC, Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section a.iv.2.5 "Limitation of the option to withdraw the European patent application", and Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section e.vii.6.1 "Withdrawal of application or designation"
- Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section e.vii.6.1 "Withdrawal of application or designation"
- Rule 67(2) EPC
- Article 9(1) and 11 RFees, and Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section a.vi.2.5 "Refund of examination fee"
- Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section a.vi.1.2 "No publication; preventing publication ", see also Guidelines for Examination in the EPO, section e.vii.6.3 "Statement of withdrawal"
- Decision J 10/08 of the Legal Board of Appeal 3.1.01 of 16 November 2009, Reasons for the Decision, item 4.
- Legal Research Service for the Boards of Appeal, European Patent Office, Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the EPO (sixth edition 2010), vii.b.4.1 , "Withdrawal of patent application as a whole"
- Decision J 10/08, Reasons 5. Decision J 18/10 of 2 December 2011, Reasons 2, 5th paragraph.
- Article 18 EPC
- EP 1000000
- EPO web site, European patent application no EP 2 000 000, News, 10 December 2008. Consulted on December 11, 2008.
- European Patent Convention, Part IV, Procedure up to grant (Art. 90 to 98)
- Guidelines for Examination before the EPO
- Legal Research Service for the Boards of Appeal, European Patent Office, Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the EPO (sixth edition 2010), vii.b : Examination procedure