Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Where To Find Business Method Patents in 2013

The US Patent Classification System (USPC) is the only major patent classification system that is not based on the World International Patent Organization's International Patent Classification (IPC) system.  The USPTO and its colleagues in the European Patent Office (EPO) have been working on developing a new classification schema based on the EPO's European Classification System (ECLA).

The motivation to moving toward a new system was two fold.  First, the current USPC was becoming outdated and its structure didn't lend itself to the frequent updates needed for rapidly changing scientific and technical innovations.  Second, the USPC was the only major classification system that was NOT based on the International Patent Classification System.

The result was an bilateral agreement between USPTO and EPO to develop a join classification system to be used by both organizations.   The USPTO and the EPO are developing the Cooperative Patent Classification System (CPC),  a new classification system based on the EPO ECLA classification scheme, currently available via ESPACENET. ECLA, and soon to be the CPC, is drastically different from the current US Patent Classification system.

The 2012 Business Methods Partnership Meeting featured a presentation on the CPC.
According to John Weiss, a Supervisory Patent Examiner in Tech Center 3600 who presented “Introduction to the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) - EPO and USPTO Bi-Lateral Classification System”, Class 705 where most business methods are classified was determined to be a good candidate for early conversion to the new CPC scheme. During the past year US and European representatives negotiated the final CPC business methods scheme.

Business methods are found under the current ECLA G06Q scheme. Reviewing the scheme, it is evident that many of the Class 705 subclasses have been merged with the ECLA system. In contrast to the current US system of classes and subclasses, the ECLA, and soon CPC, system uses a group symbol of multiple components.

Here's how the new scheme looks.

Symbol Component Description
G Section (A, B, … H)
G06 Class (any 2 digits)
G06Q Subclass (any letter)
G06Q 30/00 Main Group
G06Q 30/016 Subgroup

Weiss showed the Main Groups that will soon be the classification “home” for business methods patents:
  • G06Q 10/00 — Administration Management 
    • Resource Management, Shipping, Human Resources, Hiring. These represent ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of business operations that customers normally don’t see.
  • G06Q 20/00 — Payment architectures, schemes or protocols
    • Electronic Funds Transfer, Billing Systems, Authorization
  • G06Q 30/00 — Commerce, e.g., shopping or e-commerce
    • Sales, Customer Service, Marketing. These represent the ‘up-front, customer-facing’ aspects of business operations. It is broader than equivalent subclasses currently in the USPC; advertising falls here.
  • G06Q 40/00 — Finance; Insurance; Processing of taxes
    • Banking, Accounting, Credit/Loan approval. This includes financial portfolio inventions.
  • G06Q 50/00 — Systems or methods specially adapted for a specific business sector, e.g., utilities or tourism
    • Social networking, Utility, Real Estate, Legal Services, Healthcare. Social networking and healthcare inventions are growing at a rapid rate at the USPTO, according to Weiss.
Mr. Weiss concluded his presentation noting that some areas of current USPC Class 705 best fit outside the ECLA/CPC G06Q symbol, and that some outside of Class 705 were pulled in to this European subclass revision.

There are several key points that have large implications for future classification and prior art searches of US inventions were not addressed:

The PGPubs and US Patent databases will be merged under the new system. There are significant quality issues associated with documents in the PGPub database related to claim structure, overall wording, and classification.  One of the issues here is that under the USPC there are circumstances where the scope of the invention morphs during patent prosecution.  This means that the new CPC will not account for those subtle changes in what constitutes the protected invention.

Under the CPC system, documents will be classified based on “invention information” guided by the claims. This change introduces a significant subjectivity into classification.  Although patents classified under the new system will have multiple classifications, documents will no longer have original (OR) or cross-reference (XR) classifications.

Many important aspects of the CPC have yet to be finalized:
  • It is unclear whether the new CPC data will be present on the front page of the printed patent.
  • The data products needed to update current commercial patent tools have not been developed.
  • The XML file format for the definitions and the symbol scheme has not been finalized.
  • It isn't clear how the Master Classification File and other supporting files will be made available to users.
  • There is no training on the new system planned for external practitioners and there was little discussion on the impact of the change on prior art researchers.  (A panel of speakers from PIUG presented an excellent list of concerns at the July CPC External User Meeting.
The system is intended to be implemented beginning January 1, 2013 with a two-year transition period in the US during which USPTO examiners will be using both systems. USPTO’s contractor for PGPubs classification is expected to begin using the new CPC system at the beginning of 2013.  In the short term, USPTO will continue to use the USPC for routing purposes.  (So now the patent examiners have yet another classification system to work with.)

The impact on the quality of prior art searching is also a serious concern.  Questions posed by audience members at both the CPC Users Meeting and the Business Methods Partnership Meeting regarding training for practitioners and users outside the USPTO did not receive particularly detailed responses. Apparently the plan is that there will be online training modules available, sometime, somewhere.  (In both cases the vibe was, "we'll get back to you on this one."

The USPTO directs questions to details and status of the Cooperative Patent Classification system to the official CPC website. For a program with such large implications for IP prosecution in the US, the USPTO web page is remarkably free of easily-located and prominent information on the upcoming changes. You have to burrow in to the Office of Classification page before you find a link to the CPC, and that page provides no information other than to include a link to the CPC. For all of the focus on External Users, this is curious.

But here is a more fundamental business methods question.   How is including US business methods patents in a cooperative program with the EPO, which doesn’t allow business methods patents, actually going to work?