China joins EU, US in international patent classification system

The new system aims to reduce costs, the European Patent Office said

The Chinese State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) on Tuesday signed an agreement to start using the same patent classification system as adopted by the E.U. and U.S. patent authorities in January, the European Patent Office (EPO) announced.

With China committing to the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), now three out of the world's five big patent offices use the same classification system, said Oswald Schröder, spokesman of the EPO. Korea and Japan have not yet signed on, he said.

If those two countries join, 70 to 80 percent of all patent applications worldwide will be in the same classification system, Schröder said. That would make it very easy for interested parties to locate the intellectual property that relates to a specific technology, he added.

Companies applying for patents will save money because the process will run more quickly if most patent offices are using the CPC, Schröder said.

The system helps patent examiners to identify so-called prior art more easily, and is already used by more than 45 patent offices worldwide, said Schröder. Prior art is typically any documentary evidence that ideas or designs for which patent protection is sought are not original.

The E.U and the U.S. have been using the CPC system since January when it replaced the European Classification (ECLA) and the United States Patent Classification (USPC) systems. The CPC "is the most comprehensive classification system in the world with 250,000 different subclasses," Schröder said.

The new CPC is largely based on ECLA which had between 125,000 and 130,000 classes, according to Schröder. It also draws on the IPC (International Patent Classification), which is very rough and not detailed enough, said Schröder. "You cannot work with this," he said.

Using a better and more detailed system could reduce the number of patents, Mark Schweizer a patent litigation lawyer based in Zurich who is also a part-time judge at the Swiss Federal Patent Court, said in an email on Tuesday. "If it is easier to find prior art, it will reduce the number of patents, because prior art can destroy (or limit) patent (applications)," he wrote.

"In the long run, it is certainly good that everyone uses the same classification system. Think of a library using different cataloging systems -- it will be a mess," he said, adding that better prior art searches are a benefit for everyone. "Patents that are not novel should not be granted. Better to find out as early as possible to save costs for everybody involved," he said.

But any classification system is only as good as the people doing the classifying, said Schweizer. It is up to the patent agents who do prior art searches to make the system successful, he said. The EPO will be training Chinese IPO staff to help with this.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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