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Magazines > Online > March/April 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 2 — March/April 2003
Patent Information Has Arrived
By Stephen Adams

The 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."


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 connotations—Third World access to patented AIDS drugs, the human genome, business method patenting—and 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.


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 drowning them.

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 future—and 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 external sources.


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 everything—there 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 output.

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.


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 expert—it 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 choose—there 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 involved—the attorneys, the users, the information specialists themselves—the professional certification of the patent information industry specialist must come.

Stephen R. Adams, M.Sc., MCLIP [] is an experienced patent searcher and Managing Director of Magister Ltd. Comments?

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