Build a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door.
They're also likely to beat you into production if you don't protect your idea, and for that
reason the vast data banks of the European Patent Office already hold enough examples to
give the family cat serious doubts over its future job prospects.
The EPO, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year, offers inventors a unitary way to gain
patent protection across its 18 member states, with a Euro patent accorded the same legal
protection as corresponding national patents.
``So you see we have rather more members than the European Union,'' says Willy Lepee,
director of the EPO search directorate in The Hague, with a smile. ``And we pay for
ourselves as well.''
In order to qualify for any patent, an invention has to be novel and involve some ``inventive
step'' dis~tinguishing it from ``the state of the art'' - similar or related products or processes.
The roughly 1,000 examiners in The Hague are concerned primarily with that checking
applicants meet the first criterion. Their inventions may not already be known to the public in
any form (written, oral or through use) anywhere in the world.
At their disposal is a huge digitised database of some 31 million patent documents and other
publications from all around the world, together comprising more than 200 million pages.
There are complete patent records for most industrialised countries going back to 1920, as
well as millions of articles culled from the near 2,000 periodicals circulated every year among
the examiners, generally engineers qualified in a particular technical speciality.
So with all that information available what is the most common search request? ``The sardine
flavoured ice-cream, definitely,'' says examiner Bernard Delporte. ``No one believes that it
actually exists until they've called it up and seen it themselves.''
The EPO is an intergovernmental European body but not a European Union institution and
the organisation is keen to distance itself from the criticisms of extravagance and excess red
tape often aimed at Brussels.
It is completely self-financing, with operating and investment budgets, as well as a pension
scheme for its 3,800 employees, financed entirely from patent fees.
Healthy operating surpluses in the last few years have recently allowed the EPO to cut its
fees in what it says was probably the first drop in patent charges since the first patent
ordinance was passed in Venice in 1474.
The procedure is still far from cheap. Lepee quotes a ballpark figure of around 60,000 marks
($ 38,200) over the entire three to five year process, of which a third goes to the EPO, a
third to patent lawyers and the rest on translation costs.
The organisation itself functions officially in English, German and French, but documents have
to be translated into all languages of the countries in which a patent will apply.~
The EPO also prides itself on breaking from the bureaucratic norm and certainly the
atmosphere in The Hague~ office is refreshingly uncorporate.
Visitors are greeted in the atrium by a large exhibition of employee art work, which includes
among the landscapes and watercolours some finely rendered nudes of both sexes.
The EPO draws its staff from all 18 member countries with Germans, French, British and
Dutch in the majority. The only concession to Euro-rivalry is the make-up of the examining
teams which pass decisions on patent grants. These three-person boards at the EPO's
examination directorate in Munich are always multi-national to avoid accusations of
favouritism or special interest.