International Patent Information
European Patent Office
The European Patent office (EPO) is headquartered in Munich with an important search unit in The Hague. At the present time there are 34 countries falling under the EPO umbrella (plus four extension states) and possible expansion in the future. Applications can be filed in the EPO directly, or under the first or second phases of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). For US applicants, an EPO application is usually filed by the 30th month after priority (usually the U.S. filing date). Fees must be paid for each named country. The entire examination phase usually takes about 2-3 years, but can be more or less.
When the EPO examiner has determined what claims will be allowed, the application goes to grant, but before this happens, it must be translated into the languages of the countries finally selected (as in PCT, one can drop initially named countries but one cannot add to them).
After grant the application immediately becomes a national patent in the selected countries but for 9 months it is open to central attack (opposition) in Munich. As with patents in most countries, annual fees must be paid in each country to maintain validity of the patent there.
The European Community provides a market which is already larger than that of the United States. It will soon expand even further to the east and south. The European Patent and recently established Trademark systems provide important protections in this market which cannot be ignored.
International protection of Inventions
There is no such thing as an international patent yet, nor is there likely to be one in our lifetimes. For a comparatively modest cost however, patent rights in 84 countries that belong to the World Industrial Property Organization (WIPO) can be secured for awhile under the provisions of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).
A US citizen (individual or corporate) can file a patent application with the US Patent Office (USPTO) within 12 months of the original US filing date and maintain the priority of that original date (known as the priority date) for another 18 months at least. The application, called a PCT application must name the countries where protection might be wanted. There is a per country (or group of countries) fee, but there is no charge after 11 have been selected. The application can be searched in the US or European Patent Offices (EPO). The former is less expensive, the latter more complete. At the 19th month after the priority date one has a choice. The application (and the translations where required) can be filed one month later in any or all of the originally named countries, or one can opt for International Preliminary Examination, commonly known as Chapter II.
Under Chapter II, after payment of the appropriate fee, the application is examined by a selected patent office. US applicants can chose USPTO or EPO but can only choose EPO if that was the originally selected search office. The selected examining office (IPEA) must issue at least one report, to which response is possible, but may issue two. The final IPEA report must usually be issued by the 28th month after priority. By the 30th month, the applicant has to enter the so called National Phase by making a further selection of countries and by filing translations where required. National Phase is really a misnomer as it also applies to the regional offices, i.e. EPO (no translation needed at this time), OAMPI (Francophone Africa, French translation needed), ARIPO (small group of English speaking African countries) and the Eurasian Group (Russian translation needed).
The IPEA report is not an allowance or a refusal of the application. It is merely a guide. It enables the applicant to decide if further expense is justified, and also provides a basis for the "national" examiners. The national examiners can accept or reject the IPEA report, and they can also conduct supplemental searches.
If European protection is going to be important, the application should be searched and examined in the EPO. Not only are there substantial ultimate fee savings here, but the examiner at the IPEA phase is usually the same as at the "national" phase in the EPO. Thus this second examination will proceed much more rapidly.