Patent Classification Harmonization

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the European Patent Office (EPO) jointly launched the Cooperative Patent Classification System (CPC) and released a finalized set of CPC definitions. The CPC is operational at both the EPO and USPTO. The USPTO and EPO developed the CPC with the collaborative aim of producing a common classification system for technical documents. The CPC brings the promise of transparent and harmonized global classification for patent documents.

The System

The CPC is a hierarchical system used to classify, search and retrieve both patent and non-patent technical documents. Patent examiners and system users worldwide will be allowed to conduct patent document searches. Users are permitted access to the same document collections.

All patent documents are classified by patent family according to their technical fields. The CPC is primarily based on the European classification system (ECLA), the internal classification scheme used by the EPO. USPTO and EPO patent documents are already classified in ECLA. For that reason, the ECLA will provide the backbone for the CPC. The system also merges PGPub (pre-grant publications) and U.S. Patent databases. The CPC is more detailed than either the USPTO or EPO classification systems, thus incorporating the best of both systems.

The CPC includes approximately 250,000 agreed upon classification symbols based on the International Patent Classification (IPC) for searching. CPC searching also permits access to foreign language document collections. Therefore, review using the CPC will be more straight-forward regardless of initial language or geography using a standardized code.

CPC Definitions

The CPC definitions are based on the template used for IPC definitions and follow the general principles of the IPC. Definitions describe the classification practice in each technical area and clarify the subject-matter falling within each classification. These definitions are particularly useful for controlling classification and search quality. Ultimately, these definitions enhance the legal certainty associated with a granted patent.

CPC definitions are available for every subclass and contain a description of the technical subject matter covered in the subclass. The CPC definitions have eight sub-sections:

  1. Title;
  2. Definition statement;
  3. Relationship between large subject matter areas;
  4. References relevant to classification;
  5. Informative references;
  6. Special rules of classification;
  7. Glossary of terms; and
  8. Synonyms and keywords.

A more effective patent review process

While implementation and training may take upwards of one to two years, the benefits of the CPC are clear. This system will accelerate global classification, examination and search efforts. The CPC eliminates document reclassification from one office to another and permits searching within a unified classification system. Under the CPC, a search will yield results from the USPTO, EPO, and EPO member states. Such a comprehensive patent document database will reduce or eliminate searching redundancy.

Resource sharing initiatives also will allow users to conduct efficient prior art searches; resulting in improved searching, promoting more efficient examinations and enhancing patent examination quality. In the end, this should lead to a more efficient path to patent grant.

Poised for worldwide acceptance and use

Importantly, the CPC is aligned with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) classification standards and its IPC structure, and, therefore is compatible with all other major intellectual property offices. Before the CPC, the USPTO was the only major IP office not using an IPC-based primary classification system.

The CPC is perhaps the first step toward the ultimate goal of greater harmonization of the world’s patent systems. Certainly, China, Japan and Korea will be closely watching its implementation.

Examiners and the public will be able to access the full CPC scheme, definitions and e-learning modules in late 2012 or early 2013. Information on the CPC system, including downloadable sections, definitions and concordances are available at the official CPC website.

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