The Administrative Council of the European Patent Office has decided to accept a change to Rule 36 EPC to remove the 24-month time limit for filing divisional applications.
Update: The actual decision has now been published and can be found here: http://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/official-journal/ac-decisions/archive/20131024a.html .
A draft of the decision is set out below:
The Implementing Regulations to the EPC shall be amended as follows:
1. Rule 36(1) shall read as follows:
“(1) The applicant may file a divisional application relating to any pending earlier European patent application.”
2. The following paragraph 4 shall be added to Rule 38:
“(4) The Rules relating to Fees may provide for an additional fee as part of the filing fee in the case of a divisional application filed in respect of any earlier application which is itself a divisional application.”
3. Rule 135(2) shall read as follows:
“(2) Further processing shall be ruled out in respect of the periods referred to in Article 121, paragraph 4, and of the periods under Rule 6, paragraph 1, Rule 16, paragraph 1(a), Rule 31, paragraph 2, Rule 36, paragraph 2, Rule 40, paragraph 3, Rule 51, paragraphs 2 to 5, Rule 52, paragraphs 2 and 3, Rules 55, 56, 58, 59, 62a, 63, 64 and Rule 112, paragraph 2.”
1. This decision shall enter into force on 1 April 2014.
2. It shall apply to divisional applications filed on or after that date.
The proposals are described in more detail in this document kindly circulated by the President of the European Patent Insititute.
Basically, Rule 36(1) EPC reverts back to its old form – from 1 April 2014 you will be able to file divisional applications as long as the parent application is still pending. [Subject to the caveat that an official version of the decision is yet to be published.]
Extra charges are being introduced, but these will only apply to divisionals of divisionals (i.e. “second generation divisional applications”). The exact charges have not been decided yet.
Although some will cry “u-turn” (not European Patent Attorneys though, we are all too polite), it is good to see the Administrative Council listen to feedback from users of the current system and act accordingly.
Out of 302 responses received to a survey in March 2013 only about 7% sympathised with the current system. The negative consequences of the current system are clear:
It requires applicants to decide too early whether to file divisional applications (146 responses), e.g. before being sure of their interest in the inventions or their viability, prior to the possible emergence of late prior art, before having had the opportunity to dispute a non-unity objection, or even before being sure of the subject-matter for which (unitary) patent protection will be sought. Thus, the applicant is forced to file precautionary divisionals, thereby increasing the costs associated with prosecution (143 responses).
The time limits have not met their objectives (102 responses), since there has been no reduction in the number of divisionals, legal certainty has not increased, long sequences of divisionals are still possible, or there has been no acceleration of examination.
The time limits are complex and difficult to monitor, creating an additional burden and further costs for applicants and representatives (89 responses).
The negative effects of the introduced time limits are increased by the slow pace of examination (82 responses).
To address these consequences, the message from users was also clear: 65% voted for the reinstatement of the previous Rule 36 EPC. To their credit, it appears that the Administrative Council has done just that.
Reading between the lines it seems that enquiries from users of the system regarding the 24-month time limit and its operation were also causing a headache for the European Patent Office.
More Divisionals After Refusal?
An interesting aside is that it appears G1/09 is gaining ground. The document prepared for the Administrative Council stated:
This practice [of filing divisional applications before oral proceedings], though, has lost most of its basis since the Enlarged Board of Appeal issued its decision G 1/09 on 27 September 2010, in which it came to the conclusion that a European patent application which has been refused by a decision of the Examining Division is thereafter still pending within the meaning of Rule 25 EPC 1973 (current Rule 36(1) EPC) until the expiry of the time limit for filing a notice of appeal.
Consequently, applicants may file divisional applications after refusal of the parent application, without the need to resort to precautionary filings before oral proceedings
These “zombie” divisional applications always gave me the creeps – I would prefer to file before refusal. It will be interesting to see whether the practice of filing divisional applications in the notice of appeal period will now increase.