The Rise of a New World Order: The Cooperative Patent Classification System

Posted on 01-16-2013 by
Tags: Real Law

Brought to you by the Real Law Editorial Team

So far, there has been almost zero media coverage. Everyone is acting like things are normal. But behind the veneer of quiet, something almost unbelievable has happened: an ambitious multi-government partnership project has been completed successfully and on time.






  • What is it? It is the new Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system.
  • How ambitious? In the United States, it’s the biggest change in patent classification in the last 100 years.
  • Which partners? It’s the result of cooperation among the IP5 group, consisting of the five largest intellectual property offices in the world: Europe, Japan, Korea, China and the United States. Together, the IP5 offices account for 90 percent of all patent applications filed worldwide.
  • How successful? The U.S. Commerce Department’s United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the European Patent Office (EPO), two of the world’s largest, launched the CPC exactly as planned on January 2, 2013.

This Helps the United States

The United States badly needed to catch up with the other IP5 offices. Before January 2, it was the only major IP office not using a primary classification system based on the International Patent Classification (IPC) structure. This made cooperation and efficiency problematic, as every other office was speaking a different language—the U.S. patent classification is purely numerical, while the IPC-based class system is alphanumeric. For a resource-strapped USPTO, the more it can share resources with other major offices, the more effective it can be.

The United States cares about the reputation of its patents on the world stage. The U.S. system is one of the, if not the, oldest patent systems in the world. Changes in technology have come so fast that the existing class systems can’t keep pace, and the rising number of applications has made efficiency a paramount concern. Under this pressure, the current U.S. system has buckled a bit. Changes have been inconsistently applied, and different examiners can apply patent classes very differently.

That causes confusion, and confusion in the world of law costs time and money. Changing the country’s patent classification system is a strong first step toward better global patent harmonization, helping preserve the status of the United States as an attractive place to do business.

This Helps Patent Lawyers

This change will also make it easier for companies and their counsel to create stronger, internationally defensible patents. A harmonized patent classification system makes examination and search much more effective. Now a single classification search will yield results from the USPTO and EPO member states, covering much more ground much more quickly. As we explored in a previous Real Law patent article, the better you understand the current patent landscape, the more easily you can spot opportunities and create better patents.

Ramping Up for the Big Time

The fact that the U.S. system is so different from everyone else’s means that many American lawyers are totally unfamiliar with IPC-based systems. The bad news is that they will have to learn. To search properly, you need to know the categories, and the new CPC system has about a quarter of a million of them. No matter where you specialize, something is going to be different in your particular corner of the patent world.

The good news is that in the United States, we have some extra time to learn. The EPO has now switched over, and the USPTO has a two-year window to completely convert to this new system. That means all the third-party tools and systems will have to convert as well. While you are preparing, you should also be contacting your providers to find out who’s ready now, who will be ready soon, and who will never be ready. You might be surprised by the answers.

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