Proposed amendment to Patent Rules has the potential to dilute improvements made so far

The Indian patent regime is infamous for its slow speed of processing patent applications. The Government has over the years taken several initiatives to address this issue, primarily by increasing the number of patent examiners. The initiatives have started showing positive results.

In terms of the actual statistics, as per the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the pendency of patent applications awaiting examination has reduced from 204,177 in March 2017 to 172,488 as on February 2018. Further, the number of applications examined in the month of February 2018 was 6235 as against 3925 during the corresponding period of the previous year. Even though the percentage improvement in the number of applications examined monthly is significant, at the rate of 6235 applications per month, the backlogs are not going to be cleared anytime soon.

While the timeline for processing patent applications was improving, an immediate relief, by way of amendments to The Patents Rules, was made available to start-ups and those who select India as ISA or IPEA in a corresponding PCT application. The amendment provided for expedited examination of patent applications on request.

Under the expedited process, examination reports started being issued within a month or two, and lately within days, as against 4 or more years taken ordinarily. However, before we conclude that the patent office is completely equipped for speedy disposal of patent applications, we have to put the speedy disposal of the applications under expedited process in perspective. As per the 2016-17 annual report (“Report”), 38,578 requests for patent examination were filed, and the number of expedited examination requests stood at 135. Hence, at least in the year 2016-17, the patent office had to deal with a very small number of patent applications under expedited examination, and consequently the speed doesn’t necessarily reflect on the preparedness of the patent office to process a large number of requests for examination within comparable timelines.

The proposed amendment to the patent rules is aimed at enabling a much wider set of applicants to avail the benefit of expedited examination. The applicants, irrespective of nationality, who will be eligible to request for expedited examination, if the amendments were to come through, are listed below.

  1. (Eligible even now) An applicant who has selected India as the ISA or IPEA in a PCT application corresponding to the Indian application for which expedited examination is sought
  2. (Eligible even now) An applicant who is considered a “startup(refer Rule 2(fb))
  3. An applicant who is considered a “small entity” (refer Rule 2(fb))
  4. At least one of the applicants is a female, and the remaining applicants, if any, are natural persons
  5. An applicant who is considered a “government undertaking” (refer Section 2(h)), or is a similar entity in case of a foreign applicant
  6. An applicant who is eligible under patent prosecution highway

In our view, enabling the listed new category of applicants to request for expedited examination will result in workload, which will substantially limit the ability of the patent office to examine applications under expedited process at the speed at which the office is examining at present.

Consider small entities, who will be eligible. Although we do not know how many applicants have claimed small entity status while filing applications, we believe it is a significant number. Once the amendments come into force, at least a sizable number of applicants, who have claimed small entity status, and have been awaiting examination, might request for expedited examination. Hence, there is likely to be a spike in the number of expedited examination requests the office may receive soon after the introduction of the amendments. Not to forget the new applications that will be filed by small entities, who are likely to request for expedited examination, consequently adding to the queue of applications awaiting expedited examination.

Further, the number of applications awaiting examination, who have at least one female applicant, is also not know. The patent office had started collecting gender data of applicants some time back, and the patent office may have some extrapolated estimate of pending applications which have at least one female applicant. However, our guess is that it is a much smaller number compared to small entities.

Regarding government undertakings who may become eligible, might again add a much smaller number to the queue of expedited examination requests, as compared to small entities. We assume that foreign government undertakings may have filed fewer applications in India, and their inclination to file in future as well may be limited. Hence, it is mostly Indian government undertakings filing for patents in India. Considering that, as per the Report, Indian applicants filed 13,219 (30%) out of 45,444 applications in 2016-17, applications filed by government undertakings out of the 13,219 applications may relatively be a small number. Further, whether government undertakings will consider spending INR 60,000 for expedited examination instead of INR 20,000 for ordinary examination is yet another question, and in our view, very few may be willing.

Even though the inclusion of female applicants and government undertakings may not add a substantial number to the queue of expedited examination requests, we believe that the applicants who will become eligible under patent prosecution highway may add a substantial number. Even though at present India doesn’t have patent prosecution highway arrangement with any country, an arrangement with Japan is likely to take shape in the near future.

As per the Report, Japanese applicants filed 4,275 applications out of 45,444 applications filed in 2016-17, which is about 9.4%. As per an estimate, allowance rate in Japan is around 75%. Therefore, 75% of the nearly 4000 applications, i.e 3,000 applications, filed by Japanese applicants may become eligible. Further, assuming at least a 4 year waiting time in India to receive an examination report, and around a 1 year turnaround time to receive examination report in India, around 9,000 applications from Japanese may become eligible the moment the amendment is introduced.

In our view, even if 20% of the small entities and applicants eligible under patent prosecution highway were to request for expedited examination, it would cripple the patent office’s ability to examine applications at the rate the office is examining applications under expedited process.

In conclusion, the processing time of expedited examination requests is likely to be significantly impacted by inclusion of small entities and applicants eligible under patent prosecution highway. Start-ups, who have been benefiting from the expedited examination of their applications may no longer be able to get patents granted within a short period. In case the number of expedited examination requests entertained by the patent office is restricted to a certain number, then applications from start-ups may end up being a small percentage of the restricted number of applications. It may be wise to concentrate on reducing the backlog and the time taken to issues first examination reports in the ordinary course, before adding additional burden on the patent office by making a larger category of applicants eligible to apply for expedited examination.

We hope this article was a useful read. 

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