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The patent world is about to get rocked by the upcoming 2013 roll-out of the new Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), which will replace both the current US patent classification system and the European patent classification system (ECLA). This rollout is coming so quickly that after January 1st, 2013, the CPC will completely replace ECLA, and all US published applications (also known as PG-Pubs, or A documents) will carry CPC classifications.
The US Patent and Trademark Office held an External User Day Event on July 10th at the US Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA. This event was an opportunity for the USPTO to listen to input and concerns from the patent search community regarding the CPC. Upon invitation from the USPTO, Landon IP’s Director of Training and Special Projects, Jonathan Skovholt, served on the External User Panel to provide his analysis and comments on the effects of the planned transition.
How will these changes affect you? Read on to learn about the features of the new system, and Jonathan Skovholt’s analysis of its possible effects.
More valuable information was presented at the External User Day program that can be covered in this post, but I’ve chosen some valuable highlights about the features, advantages, drawbacks, and effects of the CPC implementation.
Features of the CPC
Extension of the IPC System: The CPC has been developed as an extension of the International Patent Classification (IPC), which is often lacking in detail and contains broad classes overstuffed with patent documents. Although other IPC extension classifications exist, the CPC surpasses all of these systems in granularity, with over 260,000 individual codes, as compared to:
- 69,000 for the International Patent Classification (IPC)
- 145,000 for the European Patent Classification System (ECLA)
- 150,000 for the US Patent Classification System (USPC)
- 180,000 for Japanese File Index (FI)
(Note that the CPC still doesn’t come close to the Japanese F-term class system, which has over 350,000 subdividsions.)
Detailed Class Titles: Another targeted improvement is that the CPC subgroup titles are typically more descriptive than the USPC titles, aiding comprehension for those who scan the codes looking for relevant materials.
Analysis from Landon IP’s Jonathan Skovholt:
Although the idea behind the CPC was to develop a classification system with a high level of granularity, Landon IP’s Jonathan Skovholt noted that the CPC hierarchy loses one major advantage of the ECLA system: ECLA’s subcodes got longer as their level of granularity increased, and followed a letter-number-letter-number organization. For example, see the following hierarchy, which gets more detailed as the codes increase in length:
This structure meant that it was easy to gauge the specificity of ECLA codes at a glance, especially when you were looking at classes out of context. CPC, on the other hand, flattens out the hierarchy and drops the easy visual cue of the letter-number format. See the following example, which illustrates a sample transition from increased length to fixed length codes:
|H01L 21/285||H01L 21/285|
|H01L 21/285B||H01L 21/28504|
|H01L 21/285B4||H01L 21/28508|
|H01L 21/285B||H01L 21/28512|
The loss of this visual distinction between codes is the loss of an ECLA feature that some found helpful in determining the relative granularity of the code at a glance.
A second issue is that the professed goal of the CPC project is to eventually have other patent offices adopt the system. Mr. Skovholt pointed out that this goal may require further targeted classification activity, because patenting in other countries can be heavily weighted towards specific technologies that may not be as well covered in the US and European areas. For example, the Japanese art can be said to be extremely heavily biased towards the automotive field. The revision committee will have to put special emphasis onto discovering and classifying these technologies thoroughly if they expect global adoption.
Reasons for CPC Development and Requirements for Implementation
The US and European patent offices were both interested in developing a joint classification system to reduce examiner workload. Harmonization is expected to:
- Enhance efficiency by requiring Examiners to use one system, rather than having to use both systems for maximum retrieval
- Improve navigation and understanding of patent classifications by removing the complexity introduced by multiple classification systems
- Facilitate work sharing on patent applications filed in multiple IP offices
- Lower the costs of classification work
- Improve the consistency of classified search results across IP offices
- Provide an adaptive and actively maintained classification scheme
Implementing the CPC will require both offices to invest time and money. Both offices must:
- Develop new training programs to ensure adoption and correct use of the system
- Collaborate on CPC revisions
- Update IT systems to support CPC searching
Analysis from Landon IP’s Jonathan Skovholt:
It’s not a given that patent search efficiency will increase with the introduction of the CPC. In the short term, professional patent searchers will see an increased classification burden, as a thorough search will require searching all existing class systems as usual. Based on the USPTO’s timeline, it will be quite a while before the full transition over to CPC has ended: because only US published applications will be classified from Jan 2013 onwards, it could be as late as 2016 before all issued grants bear CPC classifications. In our experience, old tools retain their utility even after new tools are introduced, and the end result is often that the toolbox just gets bigger, not smaller.
Even after the transition, there is the possibility that other classifications are found to have advantages over the CPC in certain situations, and the static/legacy class systems will still be used to supplement patent searches.
Although the goal of providing an adaptive and actively maintained classification scheme is admirable, it’s worth noting that collaborative revisions must both be approved by both the USPTO and the EPO. This approval process could prove to be a bottleneck if either of the offices can’t make these revisions a top priority.
Re-classification of the Existing Patent Corpus
Because the CPC is a new classification system, and not just a copy of ECLA with some USPC codes added, there will not be an exact 1:1 concordance or auto-conversion engine that can take an old code and show the new CPC equivalent, or vice-versa. Users should not expect a concordance engine to be provided by either office.
However, the conversion process of already-published documents is expected to proceed quickly. Many US documents are already classified in ECLA, and because the CPC and ECLA have common roots, this should make the mapping process relatively simple for both US and EP documents.
A larger problem will lie in the re-classification of the older US backfile. US re-classification efforts currently extend back to documents published in the 1920s. According to the USPTO representatives, the re-classification process is mostly automated. Mapping software will perform analysis of the document’s existing classification codes, and will also perform a keyword analysis. In the case of a one-to-many or many-to-one relationship between codes, some intellectual re-assignment could take place by hand.
Analysis from Landon IP’s Jonathan Skovholt:
The introduction of a new patent classification system is always a scary prospect when you consider that millions of existing documents have to be re-classified. The success of the CPC depends heavily on the quality of these re-classification efforts. If a significant percentage of documents are misclassified, searchers will have to heavily rely on the older systems to perform competent, thorough searches in the older art, making the introduction of the new system far more of a burden than a blessing.
Additional Comments from Kristin Whitman:
One comment made at the External User Day panel came from a USPTO official who suggested that if poor re-classifications took place, the examiners who search heavily in the art unit in question would re-assign the patents as necessary. To me, the idea that heavily-used art will be more likely to be properly classified is not a sufficient way to address re-classification concerns. It’s not only heavily cited art that is valuable to an in-depth project such as a validity or freedom-to-operate search.
New Practices at the USPTO
Examiners at the USPTO will have to be flexible when adapting to the CPC. Although a full training regimen is in development for Examiners, the shifts in practice may take a while to fully come together.
The CPC will change certain elements of USPTO practice. First, Examiners will need to be re-trained on classification methodology, since the CPC requires classification of all inventive material, not just claimed material. In addition, the CPC could affect how US Examiners are able to issue restrictions, as they must be taken into consideration when proving that a restriction is necessary.
By reaching out to external users, both offices are showing a commitment to making the CPC a success. The External User Day provided an open forum for searchers to submit questions and concerns. The day’s full presentations will soon be available on the official CPC website.
What are your concerns about the CPC transition, and how would you respond to Jonathan Skovholt’s analysis? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!
This post was contributed by Landon IP Librarian Kristin Whitman. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company, Landon IP, a major provider of patent search, technical translation, and information services.