Paperless patents for Australia's agency of bright ideas

By Harley Dennett

September 12, 2014

Digital progress isn’t just something IP Australia regulates on behalf of the country’s inventors and developers. Over the last five years the agency’s operations team has been experimenting and adopting electronic advances in its own customer interactions.

The agency formerly known as the patent office marked its 110th birthday this year. If you want to wish them well on the milestone, forget the telegraph and send an email — it’s 2014 and they’ll be doing the same with your patent applications.

“Gone are the days of moving large piles of paper applications around the office”, declared IP Australia after it had passed the point that 50% of applications were received digitally through its eServices channels. It promised to keep improving, making the applications process cheaper and more efficient for innovators to work with them.

Some of that work is rolling out this month. The next tranche of IP Australia’s paperless office shift begins with almost all patent correspondence and documentation now delivered entirely via email or available online as a PDF for its registered eServices customers.

It’s not the first digital move for the agency though — as one might expect for an entity sitting within the Department of Industry — and has already created multiple iterations of its online application process for all types of intellectual property, including patents, trademarks, designs and plant breeder’s rights (nobody has come up with a catchy name for horticultural IP yet). A digital approach is increasingly a necessity, with more than 150,000 applications and filings each year and growing.

“… it was timely for IP Australia to review whether the previous model for receiving and processing correspondence was still appropriate.”

Kostas Arvanitis, the acting general manager for IP Australia’s customer operations group, told The Mandarin the agency had been considering a transition to electronic services for the last five years, since it began the Integrated Customer Service Delivery program, the predecessor to its eServices.

“With enhancements to our online service offerings and in analysing customer preferences, it was timely for IP Australia to review whether the previous model for receiving and processing correspondence was still appropriate.

“Online filing for a range of services with IP Australia also attracts a lower fee for the customer. This is based on the cost recovery policy provided by the government.”

In a successful example of “build it and they will come”, after the rollout of the 2012 version of eServices, IP Australia has seen fewer customers send in applications via surface post anyway. Arvanitis says the eServices channel is now used for over 95% of all requests to IP Australia which, along with outbound electronic correspondence, offers savings to both the agency and IP customers.

Those customers are, unsurprisingly, more environmentally conscious now. Everyone wants to go paperless if they can, and digital receipt means no more scanning into in-house systems. “The PDF format is simple to save and distribute electronically to clients,” Arvanitis said. Also, nobody has to rely, or wait, on Australia Post.

At this stage only patents are in the first rollout of paperless communication, which account for roughly 30,000 — or 5% — of the applications IP Australia receives annually. Work is underway to extend the functionality to trademarks, which account for three quarters of all applications. Designs and plant breeder’s rights will follow later.

The rising tide of IP claims

Growth in applications has been exponential in the long term and steady in the last five years. The United States patent office commissioner, Charles Duell, at the beginning of the 20th century, has often been attributed as saying “everything that can be invented has been invented” — although almost certainly did not — and the phrase is now used derisively as the World Intellectual Property Organisation reports applications had reached “unprecedented levels”. Nowadays, patent offices have accepted that growth will continue to outstrip the ability to process with current methods.

In the last year IP Australia saw a rise of 13% in patent applications, with smaller increases in the other IP types. Arvanitis says this mirrors global trends.

“Different factors appear to be driving growth in different types of Australian IP activity,” he said. “For instance, patent applicants responded to changes in legislation. In trademarks, growth was driven by an increase in non-resident filings while resident filings were down by three per cent in 2013.”

Simultaneously, IP Australia is rolling out a new case management IT system to deliver “more modern and efficient workflow systems for our staff to process customers’ IP rights applications”.

But worry not that full automation is where this is going — in the case of patents, high-qualified technical examiners still need to assess each application individually.

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