Searching the EPO’s website for the terms “user-friendly” and/or “user friendliness” will result in your screen being flooded by hits describing the remarkable achievements and ongoing efforts by the EPO to be a fantastic (in the UK they would probably even call it world-beating) service provider for its users. As with other noble goals such as quality, transparency, social responsibility etc., it is certainly to be welcomed that the EPO commits itself to these values. Yet, it would be even more important and welcomed by the EPO’s users, if these objectives were also matched by reality.

This is not to make the case that the EPO would not be user-friendly; on the contrary, I think it is doing quite okay on the whole. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement. In this spirit, let us look at two more developments where user-friendliness has somewhat suffered in the recent past.

Oral proceedings before the Boards of Appeal

I have the fullest understanding for the fact that owing to the need for physical distancing in COVID-19 times, only a limited number of suitable rooms are available on the Board of Appeal premises in Haar and therefore some oral proceedings have to be held in the Isar building in Munich instead. It is also perfectly understandable and acceptable that some oral proceedings which have already been scheduled to take place on the Haar premises will be moved to the Isar building and/or will start a little later so that the starting times of oral proceedings may be staggered. The EPO is to be commended for this prudent approach.

The only problem with this is that the EPO will not necessarily inform the parties about such changes. The following is stated on the EPO’s website

As a general rule, parties will not be sent a communication informing them of a change of venue or starting time. As such changes may take place at short notice, it is up to the parties to consult the online calendar approximately three days before their oral proceedings to check whether they will take place on the Haar premises or in the Isar building and when exactly they are scheduled to start.

This lack of user-friendly communication may result in a party or their representative, who does not regularly follow this blog or study the EPO’s website, arriving at the lovely Haar premises for a 9 am hearing as originally scheduled just to learn that their hearing has been moved to the Isar building to start at 9:30 am (for example). I would not want to be in the shoes of such representatives or parties who then have to race to the Isar building at record speed. Their adrenaline levels may well be beyond healthy levels even before the Chairperson of the Board greets them and opens the oral proceedings.

As an avid user of the EPO, I just wonder why it is not possible to inform the parties of such changes of venue or the starting time by a quick fax or courtesy email.

Unless, and until this happens, dear readers, you have at least been put on notice now: always check the Boards’ online calendar before your hearing. The TBA’s current practice seems to be that all oral proceedings between two parties take place in the Isar building, whereas all ex-parte appeal proceedings and all proceedings with more than two parties are being held in Haar. But please note that I can take no responsibility for this clue, so please always check yourselves.

File Download

Once upon a time, when the EPO was even more user-friendly than it is now, it was possible to download any public EPO file from register.epo.org as a zip archive. This was incredibly convenient and useful for us practitioners, particularly when we had to take over a new case, prepare an opposition etc., as it allowed us a convenient access to a bulky file in a structured form. Alas, if you try this now, and if the file you are trying to access is voluminous (1000 pages or more), which in my technical field is nothing out of the ordinary, you are no longer able to do that. Instead you receive the following message:

The page you tried to display caused an error.
The data you requested cannot be retrieved at present. This could be due either to one of the databases being currently out of service for technical reasons or to network problems.
Download contains too many pages.
The maximum total number of pages allowed per download is 1 000.
You could try one of these options:
• Return to the Register home page
• Download from the Publication Server

Needless to say that none of the options that the EPO allows you to “try” will take you anywhere further. You might then consider how to game the system and limit your zip download request to only 800 or 250 pages or so, but the system is utterly merciless – there seems to be no way to obtain the individual documents from a file in the form of an organized bundle. You can either download the whole file (or parts thereof) as one complete huge pdf file and then try to cut and parcel it yourself, or you can download one document after the other, which can be quite tiresome if the file contains several hundred documents.

I really wonder why the EPO has introduced this change for the worse. If you search the EPO’s website for an answer you find the following here:

In order to make access and use of the European Patent Register fair for all users, we have recently implemented some technical measures to regulate excessive use of the system. These measures limit the number of pages that can be downloaded to 1000 pages in one go. To avoid rejection we recommend downloading documents in batches equal to or less than 1000 pages using the Selected documents download.

Important note: if you use ZIP Archive to download, the complete file inspection is downloaded, irrespective of individual file selection.

If you need to download European patent applications or specifications that exceed the 1000 page limit, we recommend you use the European Publication Server (data.epo.org/publication-server)

So why is access and use of the European Patent Register ”fair for all users” now, as opposed to in the past? In my humble opinion, the opposite is the case: Now there is an arbitrary limit distinguishing applications for which a zip archive is downloadable, from others where this is impossible.

To be honest, I have no idea about who normally downloads files from the EPO register. I appreciate it is a public service and so I would not exclude that some data-crawling search engines may be eager to retrieve every page on the EPO server in real time. Yet, if this was the problem, there must be other ways to deal with it. At least a page limit of (only) 1000 pages is clearly doing the opposite of providing a “fair access for all users” – it provides easy access to a file in only some cases, i.e. for some users, while severely cutting easy accessibility for others. At the very least, the page limit of 1000 is clearly inadequate for defining a “fair” access to a zip archive of the file.

Why not limit the access to a download of a zip archive (if it has to be limited at all for whatever reason) to one archive per day per user? This is probably more than any normal EP practitioner is able to digest in a day anyway.

Finally, I would be most grateful if one of my colleagues from EPI or SACEPO were to confirm in our comments section that they have already approached the EPO in this regard – or even better, if the EPO removes or at least expands the 1000 page limit again. Not all innovations are improvements, and I don’t think reversing this one would break the bank.


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10 comments

  1. Thorsten,

    Frankly, this is as much as can be expected under the “new normal” at the EPO.

    You will recall, for example, that there was ZERO consultation with users before the EPO made the (seemingly unlawful) decision that all examination oral proceedings will be conducted by video conference, even if this is against the applicant’s wishes. Whilst the option of video proceedings is much appreciated, experience suggests that it can be a poor substitute for in-person proceedings.

    It therefore seems that the EPO’s new understanding of “user friendliness” amounts to giving consideration to issues of relevance to users … but then pressing ahead with whatever decision happens to best suit the EPO’s own internal needs. This is certainly a strange approach for an organisation that is 100% funded by its users. On the other hand, other than switching to filing applications at national offices, what tools do users have at their disposal to ensure that their voices are heard by the EPO’s management?

    There is perhaps a chance that the EPO will deign to listen to users on this occasion. I do hope so … though I will not be holding my breath!

  2. I wonder where is the legal basis for the President deciding by “ordre de mufti” that all oral proceedings in examination are to be held in the form of video conferences. A mere reference to Art 10(2,a) and Art 116 does not seem sufficient to allow him to take such a far reaching decision. When looking at the “travaux préparatoires” I doubt that it has ever been envisaged to hold oral proceedings other than in form of a face to face meeting.

    At best, Art 10(2,c) allows the president to submit to the Administrative Council any proposal for amending the EPC.

    Oral proceedings in examination on the premises of the EPO can be requested by the applicant for serious reasons. The president’s decision (OJ 2020, A39) is silent on what those reasons could be. Some explanation can be found in the notice (OJ 2020, A40, Point 3). In case of refusal the applicant will be informed of the reasons of refusing such a request, but such a refusal is not separately appealable!

    The granting of a request for oral proceedings to be held on the premises of the EPO will be at the discretion of the competent division. At least the Boards will have to decide whether the discretion was correctly exercised by the division.

    I understand something different under user friendliness.

    The EPC and its Rules of Procedure allow the President to take certain actions, but certainly not to interpret the EPC in the manner it is presently done for oral proceedings in examination. At best this is the role of the Enlarged Board of Appeal.

    On the other hand, it might certainly be possible for the latter to give a “dynamic interpretation” of the EPC which suits the upper management of the EPO.

    EPI has written a letter to the president about the problems facing some representatives with oral proceedings in form of videoconferences. As any reply be recived?

    A “pilot” project for oral proceedings before opposition divisions in form of videoconferences has started on May 5th 2020 and should last until April 30th 2021, see OJ 2020, A41 and A42. When I read or hear the word “pilot” stemming from EPO’s management, I would like to scream. Experience shows that anything started under the term “pilot” is there to stay. Do you remember BEST? It was also a pilot!

    At least oral proceedings in form of videoconferences can only be held if the parties consent. I would not consent as a matter of principle until a proper legal basis is given to those decisions of the president.

    As far as the Boards of Appeal are concerned, they also want to be modern and hold oral proceedings in form of videoconferences. We have been gratified with new rules of procedures for the boards of appeal, but in those there are no procedural rules relating to videoconferences, beside a short reference in Art 12(1,e). My question is thus as well: where is the legal basis for such a decision? As for oral proceedings in opposition, the consent of the parties is also required. I would not consent as a matter of principle until a proper legal basis is given to those decisions by the administrative council.

    For oral proceedings before the boards held in Haar or in the Isar buiding, there is a further problem not mentioned in Thorsten’s blog. According to the last communiqué of the boards, see https://www.epo.org/law-practice/case-law-appeals/communications/2020/20200729.html, it has been decided that “Attendance is generally restricted to a maximum of two people per party”. I also wonder where the legal basis for limiting attendance to two people per party can be found.

    It is nice to add that “Parties wishing to attend with more than two people should submit a reasoned request to that effect in advance of the oral proceedings. It will be for the board to decide on their request.” That means the boards have the discretion to decide whether a party can be represented by more than two people or not. Knowing how the Enlarged Board “checks” the exercise of discretion by the boards, does not look encouraging if a request to attend with more than two people is refused.

    That in the present pandemic period the number of accompanying persons should be reduced might appear acceptable, but there again, where is the legal basis?

    When looking at T 437/17, the user friendliness of the boards is also a souvenir of better times.

    I am not against adapting to the situation created by the pandemic and using modern ways of communication, but this has to be done in a legal manner. This is certainly not the case here!

    Thanks again to Thorsten for putting the finger were it has to be put, and not let the EPO think it can decide as it thinks fit, disregarding any legal rules.

    As far as user friendliness is concerned it has clearly started to vanish from 2010 onwards. But the production has increased tremendously without having a negative influence on the quality. If the EPO management tells you so, you have to believe it! And if on top the perception of the independence of the boards has increased, what are you complaining about?

  3. Mr Bausch, your frustration is totally understandable and I hope the needs of the users are listened to. At least in these clear issues of “user-friendliness”. I also see the point of Concerned Observer regarding compulsory video proceedings and, for what I know, EPO examiners are not much happier with it. However, it seems the Covid crisis is going to last for some time while business has to continue. Then I wonder what, in the eyes of the user community, would be a better option: keep postponing every 4-5 months, postpone all oral proceedings sine die?
    The experience at the opposition section is not very encouraging in this regard, I heard. If one of the parties does not agree to video conference, the oral proceedings are postponed (again). This means that hearings summoned more than a year ago are being re-scheduled for the end 2021. I wonder if this is a better option. Perhaps it is, for at least one of the parties, but not for all, I guess. And certainly, it is not good for the public, the other “user” of this system, too often forgotten.

    1. Peter,

      It is certainly a balancing act. However, it is very clear that the wrong point of balance has been chosen.

      There have been enormous increases in the “productivity” of EPO examiners during the past decade. Thus, delaying oral proceedings for all applicants who would like to attend in person would be very unlikely to result in an average time to grant any longer than was the norm during the first decade of this century.

      So what would be so wrong with an alternative solution that involves accepting that proceedings have to either be delayed or instead continued in writing?

      The fact that the EPO has prioritised keeping up its “production” levels over the needs of applicants speaks volumes. What is so important about high production that it trumps the applicant’s right to be (fully) heard? Could it have anything to do with targets, “profitability”, bonuses and/or national renewal fee income? Perish the thought!

    2. @ Peter,

      If EPO or at least its upper management was really caring about the public as user, it would not frantically push production and increase production targets year after year. What the public needs are solid patents, but this is not any longer the case for quite a while.

      How do you think high quality patents can be obtained if timeliness is presently the only valid criterion to assess quality? This combined with a reduced training period, due to 5 year contracts for examiners, is certainly not promoting quality. That the quality delivered by the EPO is still better than that of the USPTO is not an excuse for the upper management to feel satisfied.

      For quite a while now the EPO is not any longer an attractive employer, and the number of people deciding not to come to the EPO after receiving a contract proposal has tremendously risen. Would you leave your country of origin, sever all ties with your national health and pension system to risk being on the dole after 5 years? I know very few people with a family who would do so.

      User friendliness is long gone, and in spite of vehement denegation by the upper management, staff friendliness has gone as well. The number of people presently leaving the EPO as soon as they have reached the minimum age to obtain a pension is extremely high. The only reply the management has found is to envisage raising the minimum age to obtain a pension.

  4. It is entirely right to signal cases when the EPO is not up to its claimed objective of user-friendliness and Mr Bausch post and the information and views provided by the commenters must be given full consideration by the EPO.
    However, it is also fair to mitigate these critical comments with a positive note. Generally speaking, the EPO has a strong record in terms of user-friendliness. A few examples :
    – audit of granted patent files by external assessors as part of the SACEPO working group on quality (first meeting in October 2019) ;
    – prompt and forceful handling of the complaint procedure introduced a few years ago, very efficient when the EPO has failed to comply with a party’s “right to be heard”;;
    – handling of third party-s observations under Article 115 EPC, which examiners are required to consider;= ;
    – free and efficient public access to the EPO patent database including access to translation of patent documents esp. from Asia.

    1. Cher Monsieur Hagel,

      Your comment reminds me of a glass. For some the glass is half full, for others half empty.

      I would rather classify you among those who find the glass half full, whereas I would rather find the glass half empty. I am not alone with this position.

      If you take a careful look at decisions of the boards of appeal you will see that the number of patents revoked or severely limited after an opposition is quite high. Even taking into account that only 5% of granted patents are subject to an opposition, when this figure is extrapolated, the result becomes frightening. One of the reasons is often that the original search was not correctly carried out.

      I do not know what the external assessors have found out, but it would be interesting to know who decides on the cases to be assessed externally. If it is the EPO, such assessment is not worth a penny.

      For instance, if you have a look at T 1089/17, T 0568/17 and T 0943/16, you will see that the corresponding applications have been refused but the search was atrocious and the examining division showed a rather high level of incompetence.
      As far as the complaint procedure is concerned, I know by experience that the number of non-committing replies is also quite high. In general the reply does not say much more than “The Guidelines have been followed”, and yet one wonders which Guidelines have been followed.

      I do not consider that having access to the EPO database is so wonderful. After all, the users of the system have paid for it, so it does not appear to be to be a favour, but rather something due.

      It is abundantly clear that the “EPO is not up to its claimed objective of user-friendliness”, and if you think that “the views provided by the commenters must be given full consideration by the EPO”, you might rather end up like Godot.

      As Concerned Observer has stated, EPO’s upper management is only interested in a high production in the shortest possible time so that the annual fees flow as quickly as possible into the budget of the member states. This paired with a very “selective” cooperation policy helps the management to get approval in the AC of any measure it thinks fit, and which end up with a fat bonus for the upper management.

      I would not be surprised if the “pilot” for oral proceedings in opposition will lead to amendments of the implement rules rendering them mandatory in form of videoconferences. With a bit of time, the same will also apply to oral proceedings in appeal.

      That something had to be done in view of the pandemic is not at stake. But what is done is so much against the letter and the spirit of the EPC that it brings shudders. The EPO often insists on having consulted users, but one just wonders which users have actually been consulted.

      1. Dear Attentive Observer,
        Thank you for this detailed and personal reply. You are right that I am optimistic, this is my temperament rather than a systematic position. I like the phrase by William of Orange: “Hope is not necessary to engagement, nor success to perseverance ». But I also try to be realistic. When I voice views in articles, they relate to issues on which my views might have some influence. For example, I have repeatedly pointed out that the requirement of Article 83 was not given sufficient attention during the EPO examination (on this topic, the recent BOA decision T 0161/18 provides a strong illustration and hopefully will trigger a reckoning esp. in AI cases). I also think a significant ingredient of user-friendliness is predictability of the decisions and I have advocated changes in EPO policies in CII cases.
        Replies to some of your specific comments :
        – I have a recent experience of the complaint procedure and it turned out to be extremely efficient as the EPO’s response was both very prompt and forceful beyond my expectation.
        – As to the audit of granted patent files by external assessors within SACEPO, my experience as an assessor was quite positive, the meeting was well organised. I do not know how the EPO selected the cases to be audited but I can say the two files I audited pertained to different technical areas and the conclusions were also quite different.
        – The public and free access to the EPO database is a source of technical information of enormous value given its scope and structure optimised for searching, not just for applicants who pay fees and third parties but for the public at large. Efforts to promote its use should be boosted by NPOs and patent professionals by including on a broader level training in education programs for students, scientists and the technical staff of companies. The creation and updating of this resource is a major objective of the patent system. The EPO deserves credit for its achievements in this area.

  5. Thank you Mr Bausch for bringing our attention to these new technical measures. Based on a test this morning, it seems that the page limit has already been increased to 2000 pages. But this is still too low for files in the life science or pharma fields…

  6. Oh, while we’re at it:
    1) The new Espacenet is a pain to use if you’re not sitting in front of a screen with at least 21 inch diagonale. Yes, you may say, this is not a big requirement. Until you have to acess Espacenet with any kind of laptop. The user interface is a waste of space that takes up about one thrid of the screen and then presents no acutal information. Trying to review a larger list of documetns is close to impossible. For downloading the original file you have to click yourself through a nested menu and you arrive at no less than knowledgeable three clicks what you could have done with one. The split screen “feature” of the new Espacenet should be optional, usually I am interested in the content of only one of those panes. Or its size “distribution” could be configurable (I do not need a “full” “half-screen” with the Figures all the time).

    When BiSSAP came out I thought it was a really poor interface design with a lot of wastes space an unnecessary scrolling actions to arrive at a button that could have been placed just a bit smarter and thereby avoid scrolling altogether. In view of the new Espacenet, BiSSAP shines in comparison.

    P.S.: You can still use the “old” Espacenet and take a survey why you’re using the old one.

    2) The EPO Register search line.
    a) Why can’t it simply ignore spaces and/or special characters? Search EP 1 234 567 and it will find nothing, search EP123456 and here comes the entry! Search for WO 2019/012345 and it will find nothing, search for WO2019012345 and here come the entry! User friendly?
    b) Search for PCT/US2015/012345 -> nothing. Search for PCTUS2015012345 -> nothing What? OK if you use WO2015US12345, THEN you will find the entry. That is you ahve to convert the totally regular PCT application number to something entirely non-intuitive (as you will have to omit also any leading ‘0’). It is so unintuitive that I usually search with the PCT application number at Patentscope to there get the WO publication number and with that go back to the EP Register.
    c) Try to find anything using a US provisional application number; unless you do a mental salto mortale, i.e. to convert US 62/619,146 into US201862619146P you will not have any luck. The same holds true for JP priority filings …

    It is not user friendly to make use of an entirely “homegrown” application number or priority number fomatting scheme. Honestly, we’re in the year 2020 and to rectify the above “search line quirks” should be nothig more than a programming task for a first semester IT student.

    3) Should we talk about the user-friendliness of the sequence listing standard, ST.26, to come? Not today … Biotech patent practitioners: Seid atf der Htt [pun intended].

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