Patent Information Has Arrived
By Stephen Adams
Message from the EPIDOS Annual Conference 2002
The EPIDOS division of the European
Patent Office (EPO) holds its annual conference in
a different venue each year in one of the member states.
In 2002, it was Denmark's turn. Over 400 delegates
from some 35 countries descended upon Copenhagen between
October 14th and 17th.
Many of the presentations can be found
on the EPO Web site
I will not review them in detail, as PDF versions of
most of the slides are available, along with many of
the product reviews.
With a new EPO mission statement in place, I detected
a genuine feeling among the EPIDOS staff that patent
information is no longer regarded as a by-product of
patent-granting activities, but right at the heart
of what the Office is trying to do. One of the specific
actions arising from the overall mission statement
is that the EPO will, "as one of the world's leading
providers of technical information, help to promote
a knowledge-based society in Europe."
PATENTS GAINING VISIBILITY
Several plenary papers conveyed the message that "patents
have arrived." Intellectual property is visible in
the eye of popular media as never before. There are
often negative connotationsThird World access
to patented AIDS drugs, the human genome, business
method patentingand much remains to be done in
educating the general public in Europe about the patent
system, but at least some form of debate is taking
place. In industry, there is also an increased use
of patent information by different user groups. The
last few years have seen a veritable avalanche of books
on "how to turn around your company using intellectual
property" or "valuing your nontangible assets." Users
of patent information have sprung up from the financial,
marketing, and business sectors, as they learn how
to use patents as currency for company asset valuations,
due diligence, competitor intelligence, and the like.
However, the enthusiasm with which we might greet
this first trend is tempered by the knowledge that
while patents may have arrived, information literacy
has not. The number of people who have encountered
patent information is rising, but the number of people
who are skilled in the fundamentals of understanding
the processes, choosing appropriate sources, conducting
high-quality searches, and intelligently analyzing
output has not risen in step. There is a substantial "tail" in
the graph of user numbers versus user skills.
NUMBER OF EXPERT SEARCHERS DECLINING
With this background in mind, we could face a worst-case
scenario in which, following the avalanche of the initial
esp@cenet release in 1998 (35 million patent references),
there will be a deluge of legal status data (59 million
data events) in 2003. The average user will have no
idea what most of this information means. There is
a risk that the whole system will become unmanageable
and we will reach a stage in which the patent information
providers will have succeeded in silencing their critics,
not by satisfying their needs but by overwhelming and
How can we prevent this scenario from coming true?
It seems clear that we have a developing dichotomyin
the patent information market. On the one hand, expert
users will still need flexible, powerful, quality tools
for the foreseeable futureand Web interfaces
are a long way from ideal in this context. On the other
hand, new users will challenge the old ways, and suppliers
will need to explain their current tools and working
methods, or redesign them if they are no longer appropriate.
Furthermore, both sets of users have an urgent
need for analysis support tools. There was perceptibly
less emphasis this year on search and retrieval (new
databases, new record formats, new online commands,
new interfaces) and much more on integration, analysis,
and presentation. Approximately one-third of the exhibitors
were partially or totally devoted to tools that could
help an enterprise to make sense out of the patent
information that it heldin-house or had obtained from
RESISTANCE TO ANALYSIS TOOLS
Experienced users have a certain degree of prejudice
against analysis tools. This is born out of cases in
the past when the enthusiasm of a product marketing
department far exceeded their knowledge of patents
or their understanding of the industry. As a result,
solutions were touted that proved quite unsuitable
for real-life applications. However, I believe that
the industry could be moving into a more mature phase.
It is clear from the exhibition that these tools are
no longer just for "big pharma"large multinational
organizations with big budgets. However, price is not
everythingthere is still a need for rigorous
evaluation. The vendors will do no one any favors in
the long term by trying to sell "unique solutions" or "customized
algorithms," but refusing to discuss them intelligently.
No information specialist worth the name should be
expected to entrust their commercial decision-making
processes to a "black box."
Just as with the general trend in distributing patent
information, it is also possible to conceive of a worst-case
scenario in the use of analysis tools. These tools
are just as capable of drawing an exquisite map, graph,
or diagram when in the hands of an untrained end-user
without the skills to evaluate critically either the
methodology or the source data, as when used by an
expert. Furthermore, the senior management, who are
often the targets of this sort of "executive summary" presentation,
will not be able to tell the difference and could make
commercially vital decisions on the basis of such flawed
Please do not misunderstand this. I am in no way
decrying the extension of patent information into the
workspace of the non-specialist, nor trying to argue
for an exclusive right of the specialist to control
its use. What I am arguing for is the active
involvement of specialists in the development, marketing,
and utilization of these tools at all levels of industry.
Some companies will be large enough to have their own
in-house experts who can help with the process. A large
proportion of industry does not have this luxury and
depends upon third parties, or upon the advice of each
potential supplier, for their support. There is still
very little independent "consumer advice" to help these
new customers to assess a product before they buy it.
DATA OVERLOAD INCREASING
In general, I am optimistic about the future. However,
I would like to raise two further words of caution.
Firstly, the launch of extensive information tools,
such as INPADOC on esp@cenet, must be accompanied by
an equally extensive support and training program.
Data overload is a problem for the expertit can
be fatal for the end-user.
Secondly, the EPO is becoming a high-volume supplier
of raw data, in highly flexible formats such as XML.
This same basic data feed is going into a range of
its own information products, and the EPO must be very
careful to ensure that different products which purport
to convey the same information should say the same
thing, at the same time, in the same way. Failure in
this area will damage the reputation of all the products
at a single stroke. Furthermore, some third parties
will be customizing these data and the user is going
to be faced with many versions from which to choosethere
will no longer be an authority file.
It seems evident to me from this conference that
the entire profession must move forward. The new users
have a steep learning curve to climb in order to understand
all that patent information can do for them. The experienced
users will have an ever-growing role to support, develop,
and enhance the output of a multitude of different
patent information systems. There will be new challenges
to the question of where to source authoritative data.
I have come to believe strongly that the time is
now right for a much more explicit standard of professional
expertise to be developed for the patent information
specialist. As many more users demand advice, they
will need to know that their advisors are competent.
There are already initiatives in training information
specialists in the unique skills of patents work, and
some have been approved by national education authorities.
For the sake of everyone involvedthe attorneys,
the users, the information specialists themselvesthe
professional certification of the patent information
industry specialist must come.
Stephen R. Adams, M.Sc., MCLIP [email@example.com] is
an experienced patent searcher and Managing Director
of Magister Ltd.
E-mail letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.