Jan 15, 2013Science and Technology
The Cooperative Patent Classification

Two weeks ago, on the first day of the new year, the world collectively switched to a new way of thinking about innovation. The switch was to a harmonized, collective hierarchy of categories for the world’s IP organizations to think about classifying inventions. The Cooperative Patent Classification, a collaborative effort between the USPTO and the European Patent Office (EPO), is a long-overdue reevaluation of the global innovation taxonomy.

Figure 1: EPO President Benoit Battistelli and Under Secretary David Kappos sign the CPC agreement.

The transition was well-planned. As a result it has progressed smoothly, inexpensively, has not drawn significant media attention, and yet promises to be among the most significant beneficial changes to the global intellectual property system since the creation of the World Intellectual Property Organization forty-five years ago. Any classification scheme will impose a particular order, which seems contradictory to the goals of an intellectual property system which seeks to encourage novel, innovative thinking. But this is a comparatively small price to pay, as strong classification is unquestionably essential to patent protection, and the new CPC is a major step forward.

The details

The new system of classification will be primarily based on the European classification (ECLA), but aims to incorporate “best practices” of both ECLA and US Patent Classification (USPC) systems. The main focus is increased access to information useful for classifying and searching within classes. The CPC definitions will include eight sub-sections, which incorporate information unavailable for many USPC definitions:

  • Title
  • Definition statement
  • Relationship between large subject matter areas
  • References relevant to classification
  • Informative references
  • Special rules of classification
  • Glossary of terms

The new classification will be compatible with the more general International Patent Classification system used by WIPO, and will incorporate entries which are unique to one of the participating classification system. For example, the USPC classification will contribute further subdivisions of the class definition for “Business Methods.”

Figure 2: The CPC will incorporate the ECLA and USPTO classifications, as well as portions of the Japanese Patent Office's File Index. Source:

The ECLA scheme was frozen on September 1st of last year, and since the beginning of 2013, all EPO patents are classified exclusively under the new CPC scheme. The USPTO will have a two-year transition period until the end of 2014 where patents and published applications will share both USPC and CPC classification. USPTO documents dating back to 1920 are already classified in ECLA, and therefore CPC.

The advantages

The world needs stronger patents, not more, and this begins with the examination process. The CPC classification means better resources for examiners, which “will help enhance the examination and search abilities of each Office and bring more certainty of patent rights to applicants as they move their products and technologies to market.” (CPC News, Oct. 2012)

To this end, the new CPC system offers a collection of important benefits. It will be current and dynamic, incorporating classification for the latest technology extensively prepared by the EPO. The EPO and the USPTO will collaborate to regularly update the system to follow technology filing trends. It will  have more category breakdowns (200k versus 150k) than the previous USPC, meaning more targeted searches and more focused results. Most importantly, the CPC will feature global compatibility and widespread collaborative use amongst 45 patent offices and more than 20,000 patent examiners worldwide.

The future

For the first time, patent offices around the world will be on the same page. Because of the global nature of prior art and innovation today, the collaboration and information sharing facilitated by this classification will make patent examination more effective. “By utilizing patent examiner search results performed by other IP offices around the globe, by having a better understanding of search strategies, and by increasing access to more classified prior art, work sharing will minimize duplicative efforts and reduce examiner workloads.” This means better, faster examination, which in turn means stronger patents. In short, the CPC addresses the major problem facing the global intellectual property community. I anticipate that the framework established by the CPC will form the basis from which a truly beneficial global intellectual property system will eventually flourish. These are exciting times.

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