Guest Post by Gwilym Roberts (UK) of Kilburn & Strode LLP
The USPTO delivered an advisory on 30th July 2012 urging US practitioners to file Form PTO/SB/69 effectively releasing search results from an unpublished US patent application for delivery to the EPO. Practitioners in Europe have become aware of this because of the flurry of queries they have received subsequently from US attorneys requiring clarification!
The relevant EPO provision is Rule 141 EPC. Rule 141(1) is the key provision which entered into force on 1st January 2011 requiring applicants filing a European patent application claiming priority to additionally file a copy of the results of any search on the application from which priority was claimed. However under Rule 141(2) the EPO can make special arrangements and US Federal Register Notice 2011-33539 notes that the USPTO has agreed with the EPO to provide the search results directly. As a result, the EPO, prior to entry into force of the new rule, confirmed to users that they did not need to provide priority search results for US originating cases. Hence, as far as European Patent attorneys are concerned, when we file a European patent application claiming priority from a US patent application there is no obligation on us, under EP law, to additionally provide search results from the original US application.
Before we get on to the new complexities following the USPTO advisory, as a final point Rule 141(3) does permit the European Patent Office to additionally request copies of search results from related cases. In practice we are seeing this invoked in only very few instances.
The complexity had come, as noted in the Federal Register Notice, because, of course, most if not all US patent applications will not have been published at the time a European application is filed claiming priority, meaning that the search results are not publically available. As a result, Form PTO/SB/69 needs to be filled out for any US case in which an EP priority is likely to be claimed. In practice this has not been happening, it would appear, hence issuance of the advisory pleading with US attorneys to fill out the form. Of course the form is discretionary not obligatory and it may well be that in some instances applicants are not happy for their information to be released before publication of the patent application. But the implication of the advisory notice is that if the situation is not remedied, the EPO exemption may be lifted meaning that on every EP case filed claiming priority from the US, the US search results need to be filed which will of course add to the burden and cost of the process. It's not clear whether there has been discussion to that effect between the EPO and the USPTO, nor what prompted the appearance of the advisory.
So what does this mean for US attorneys? At present, whether or not the form is filed on the given case has no effect on the legal situation in Europe – European patent attorneys are not obliged to independently file copies of the priority search results by virtue of the notice from the EPO President. Given that in due course the US application will be published the practical effects of not filing the form are likely to be either that processing of the European application is delayed until publication of the US application from which it claims priority, or that the EPO will start invoking Rule 141(3) and independently asking for the search results. Longer term, however, we may see the exemption being lifted with the ensuing problems as described above.
So for now perhaps the answer is, going forwards, and with applicant consent, to file the form, given that the results will be publically available at 18 months anyway. However if the applicant is uncomfortable then this needs to be taken into account although it's worth noting that the search results will not become visible from the EPO earlier than 18 months either as it is subjected to the same non-publication period. Questions have been raised as to whether it is necessary to file back dated release forms for applications already filed. There will be no need to do this for applications that have been published but more generally this does not appear to be something the USPTO Advisory is requesting.
As regards the USPTO, it is clearly taking the correct legal line in terms of applicant interest. But looking at other offices the approach taken by the UKIPO is certainly more straightforward – when requesting search on patents form 9A there is a box to be ticked requesting consent for sharing search information confidentially but note H indicates that in any event they are obliged to provide some information before publication to the EPO. In other words, they just do it. The relationship between EP law and UK law is far closer and intertwined, or course, but what a simple solution!