Quality assurance and examination practices at the Estonian Patent Office
The Estonian Patent Office (Eesti Patendiamet – EPA; hereinafter: Office) is a small office with a low number of national patent applications and first filings. The Office started to operate in March 1992 after the re-establishment on 3 December 1991. Patent protection or utility model protection can be applied for inventions under the Patent Law and the Utility Model Law which entered into force on 23 May 1994. Most of the patent examiners work in the Office since the time the Office started to operate and by now they have gained a lot of experience. The patent examiners examine both patent applications and utility model applications.
Proceeding from the fact that Estonia acceded the European Patent Convention in 2002 in recent years the number of national patent applications and PCT applications designating Estonia decreased significantly. Therefore the number of required patent searches has also decreased. In order to keep up the qualification of the patent examiners due to smaller work load it was possible to start making state of the art searches for utility model applications, for which substantive examination is not carried out. Complimentary state of the art searches are carried out in case of all utility model applications without additional fee.
As the number of patent applications is low it is neither reasonable nor possible to fully apply quality assurance system, e.g.an ISO9001-based Quality Management System in the Office.
The EPA’s quality management system
Main objective of the EPA’s quality management system (QMS) is to improve the quality of patent search and examination at the Patent Department. Activities to achieve this objective are carrying out work product reviews, customer satisfaction survey, handling of complaints, analysing the decisions of the Board of Appeal and the courts, developing new rules, practices, procedures and tools for examination and training of examiners.
Leadership and policy
All the main departments of the Office have been involved in the quality system in one way or another. Quality management belongs to the area of activities of the Vice-Director General. He is responsible for directing the implementation of the QMS. The Head of the Patent Department is directly in charge of work product quality.
The most essential indicators of assessment of the work product quality are the results of customer satisfaction survey and the percentage of oppositions of the granted patents in the Board of Appeal and courts. One way of researching customer satisfaction which has been practiced for years already is arrangement of round table meetings with the participation of QMS team member, the management of the Patent Department, examiners and patent attorneys as representatives of the users. These meetings are held at least twice a year.
What concerns the decisions of the Board of Appeal and the courts, it is considered alarming if the number of cancelled patents and appeals on the decisions made by the Office exceeds 1%.
In the Figure the QMS of the EPA organizational chart has been depicted.
Nowadays Deputy Director General is responsible for and manages the QMS in use. He gets information required for management from the structural units of the Office according to their tasks in QMS. The Deputy Director General is assisted by an Advisory Group. As a result of discussions at the joint meeting between the Heads of the Departments and the Head of QMS appropriate measures are taken and written in the work plans of the Office.
In order to make QMS work the main tasks between the structural units of the Office are divided as follows.
Administrative Department reviews that the qualification of the staff corresponds to the required level and with the management of the Patent Department makes proposals for arrangement of trainings for the examiners and the other members of the staff.
Information Department together with Patent Department carries out customer satisfaction survey. Useful information is received also from the other PR events. IT support and review, and revise guides, instructions and manual of patent examination belong to the area of activities of Information Department.
Legal Department receives the decisions of the Board of Appeal and the courts, analyses them and makes suggestions to make changes in the practice of the Patent Department or update legal acts. Legal Department also solves legal problems arisen during patent examination drawn attention to by the Patent Department and trains examiners on legal issues.
The task of the staff of the Patent Department is to compile new required guidelines for carrying out examination as well as to revise the existing guidelines and examining practices and procedures. It takes place in accordance with the work plan of the Patent Department at the management of the Head of the Department or the Deputy Head of the Department.
Guidelines and training
In the Office besides in-office guidelines also PCT International Search and Preliminary Examination Guidelines and Guidelines for Examination in the European Patent Office are used for carrying out patent examination. Moreover if required and if it is in accordance with the legal acts of Estonia also the Case law of the EPO Board of Appeal are taken into account. The latter is used most often in case of inventions of the field of biotechnology and computer implemented inventions. The purpose of using PCT and EPO guidelines is harnonisation of patent examination practices with the practices used in EPC member states and PCT authorities. The majority of examiners are fluent in Russian and Finnish so that they can use original information published in these languages and it can be considered additional advantage of ensuring the quality of the patent examination.
In order to ensure the qualification of examiners and harmonisation of examination practice the Office participates in the cooperation programme between the Nordic and Baltic countries. In the framework of cooperation so-called NAP meetings concerning actual issues of examination take place regularly once or twice a year. NAP meetings in the area of biotechnology are held separately. Bilateral cooperation agreement on patent examination has been made with the Office’s closest neighbour Office - the Finnish Patent and Registration Office.
High-level professional training of the patent examiners is guaranteed by attending training programmes for the staff of the the national patent offices of the EPC member states at the European Patent Academy.