EPO is seeking to limit the submission of divisional applications, which would be a severe blow to small, newly started technical companies in particular. Although a stop was put to their latest proposal by the Committee on Patent Law, it is highly likely that despite this setback we will see a modified version put before the Administrative Council meeting in March.
EPO has proposed limiting the option of submitting divisional applications to a period of 24 months following either a first order from the Examining Division or a first notification that the parent application lacks unity of invention. The proposal represents a significant limitation of the possibilities allowed to applicants under current rules, which enable divisional applications to be submitted for as long as the basic application remains valid.
The proposal is intended in part to limited alleged misuse of the submission of divisional applications. Based on the figures presented by EPO, it is estimated that alleged misuse occurs in fewer than one in a thousand applications.
However, the proposal is very far-reaching. If it is passed, it will no longer be possible to submit a divisional application in connection with oral proceedings. At present, this method can sometimes be the only way to ensure that an applicant has the possibility to obtain protection for patentable material contained in the submitted application. In cases where the patent application is rejected during the course of the proceedings, under current rules the applicant has the option of pursuing other lines of retreat through divisional applications, but under the proposed change in the rules divisional applications must be submitted at an early stage.
Small players hit hardest
EPO’s line will particularly hit small, newly started technical companies, which often lack both the economic resources and a precise knowledge of the position of the technology. At the same time, the innovation which forms the basis of such a newly started company often includes a number of inventions for which the company may be totally dependent on being granted strong protection.
Given that a company may often lack the resources to submit a large number of patent applications during the start-up phase, it has to rely on one or two broader-based applications. But due to a lack of the resources needed to fully protect the position of the technology beyond the basic idea behind the invention, as formulated in the applicant’s principal requirements, it often becomes necessary to utilise the option of divisional applications.
As the application is scrutinised, any changes to a principal requirement are defended in a rejoinder. Under EPO’s proposal, where the rejoinder does not have the desired effect, the time limit for submitting divisional applications would meantime have expired. Consequently the applicant must, at the time of submitting the rejoinder, already submit divisional applications for the set of inventions that can be identified by the applicant, in the event that an umbrella claim contained in the basic application is not approved. Given the fact that this entails a significant increase in procedural costs for a regular applicant, for a start-up company this option becomes prohibitively expensive. The proposal is therefore hostile to start-up companies of the type which EU common market policy otherwise claims to support.
The industry’s position
Against this background, Swedish and European industry together with representative associations are strongly opposed to EPO’s proposal, and a majority of the national delegates who spoke at the CPL meeting were also responsive to the concerns of the industry and the representative associations’ misgivings. The original proposal failed to muster support, subsequent to which a revised proposal was put forward whereby the option of submitting a divisional application would have to be justified and receive the approval of the Examining Division. This proposal also failed to gain sufficient support.
I would like to see a limitation introduced which would simply establish an exception in the case of divisional applications whose submission constitutes clear misuse of the regulatory system. The issue is whether EPO continues to pursue its hard line against divisional applications and whether this will gain resonance at the Administrative Council meeting in March.
Nils Ekström, European Patent Attorney