Celebrating 50 years of the European Patent Convention: How time flies when you are having fun!

Celebrating 50 years of the European Patent Convention: How time flies when you are having fun!

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19 September 2023

On the 5th of October 1973, 16 countries, Belgium being one of them, signed the European Patent Convention, also known as the EPC. By doing so, this multilateral treaty created the European Patent Organisation and in essence also the European Patent Office (EPO).

While the politicians signed the treaty after a lengthy debate, the actual work for the EPO started afterwards. In order for the European Patent Office  to perform the task they were set out to do, the German Patent Office President of that time, Mr. Kurt Haertel, was entrusted to recruit the necessary staff and organize for the infrastructure which was necessary to establish the EPO.

Sometime later, on the 2nd of November 1977 to be precise, the EPO, staffed with only 98 people, opened its doors at its temporary headquarters in a rented building in Munich. Throughout the years, the number of people working for the EPO has increased to about 6300 employees from 34 countries, speaking 42 different languages. Currently, the EPO is situated at 5 different locations to house this large number of people performing a variety of tasks.

So, although the treaty was signed in 1973, it took some additional years before the EPC came into effect and applicants could file a single patent application with the EPO that, if granted, is applicable in all the member states that were chosen. The first granted EP patent was a fact in January of 1980 about a nifty device which was able to determine if coins placed in parking meters and train-ticket machines were authentic.

Throughout this period of 50 years, technology continued to take major steps forward, and thanks to some of these technical contributions, the EPO was also able to take impressive steps forward solving some of the problems the EPO was faced with. By 1984, over 16 000 000 classified documents were stored at the EPO’s branch in The Hague weighing about 800 metric tons! Aiming to solve this problem, the first ESPACE CD-ROMs were produced in 1989 announcing a first step into the age of digital archiving while generating a cost saving of a whopping 20%! In 1995, the EPO launched a computerized query service called EPOQUE which enabled patent examiners to quickly look through important documents, giving them access to over 10 million documents, a number which tripled within the following three years. And as technology progresses, so did EPOQUE with a second version of the program allowing examiners to search over 120 databases including the databases of the USPTO, the JPO, Derwent WPI and WPIL and thus becoming the most advanced search system of its time. While EPOQUE was an internally used program, the EPO also invested in public search engines and was able to launch in 1998 a new program called Espacenet. When launched, it made nearly 30 million patents and applications accessible free of charge, such that for the first-time companies worldwide had free access to the most comprehensive range of patent information available on the internet.  Another important addition to the services provided by the EPO was the possibility to file patent applications online via Epoline, shortly followed by allowing online file inspection. After its launch in 2000, the public seemed to like this tool since the number of online applications per year increased sharply from 750 filings in 2001 to over a quarter of all the filings by 2006.

Although COVID crippled almost the entire world and had a devastating impact on many lives, it also created opportunities which otherwise might have taken a lot longer for the IP community to adopt to. Oral proceedings in examination and opposition by videoconference (VICO) became the new norm saving thousands of flights across Europe – which is good for the planet – resulting in reduced travel time by parties which otherwise needed to be present at one of the EPO offices, while generating an overall cost reduction for their clients.

As is customary when achieving important milestones, the EPC will be celebrated for being around for 50 years. So, if you don’t have any firm plans yet for the 5th of October 2023, which is exactly 50 years to the day after the signing of the European Patent Convention, you might want to put a placeholder in your calendar and register for the livestream as the event will be streamed on the website and social media. On-site participation is by invitation only at the premises in Munich and The Hague.

For more information and registration to the event, please visit this page.

If you have any questions, we would be happy to help. Feel free to reach out to our European Patent Attorneys via email on

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