India moved to the product patent regime - which allowed patents for innovations for a period of 20 years in tune with international norms - in 2005. Patent-related activities surged dramatically as the Indian Patent Law was amended to make it fully compliant with TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). But the government's poor infrastructure to process and grant patents, thereby causing prolonged delays - as long as seven years, in some cases - has been a subject of criticism. O.P. Gupta, India's Controller General of Patents, Designs & Trade Marks, tells P.B. Jayakumar about his mission to streamline the processes and protocols in order to bring Indian patent offices on a par with international standards by 2018. Edited excerpts:
Despite the changes brought in to strengthen India's patent regime, there are inordinate delays in granting patents. What's being done?
It is true that we took time for creating the necessary infrastructure, computerisation, database upgrade, setting up IT facilities and hiring adequate technical manpower to deal with the enhanced filings post 2005. Until two years ago, we only had 130 patent examiners spread across the four patent offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. In the past few years, new filings have been in the range of 43,000 to 46,000 a year; but we could examine only 18,000-20,000 applications a year. That is because a patent examiner cannot process more than 12-15 new applications a month. This added to the huge backlog that dates back to 2008/09.
If this pendency in examination and processing continues, it will become unmanageable and go out of control, leading to collapse of the Indian patent system. That was why we decided to streamline and modernise IP offices in phases and bring back normalcy by 2018. Special emphasis was given on recruitment of examiners and controllers, computerisation and IT-enablement of patent offices.
The first major recruitment of examiners and controllers took place in 2002/03, and then after a gap of 10 years in 2012. Last year, we recruited 459 examiners; the first batch of 286 examiners has completed its training and is engaged in examination work. The second batch of 108 examiners is undergoing training at the respective patent office locations. Another 41 examiners joined in January 2017 and are undergoing training. From examining 1,200-1,400 applications in July-August last year, we were at 3,800 as of January. The disposal of patent applications has increased by 53.58 per cent in 2015/16, and will increase further during the current fiscal. At this rate, we are targeting 6,000 applications a month by the middle of this year, and 72,000 applications a year at a rate of 12 applications per examiner per month. At this run rate, we can restore normalcy and clear the backlog within the next two years.
What were the other changes brought in as part of the revamp?
Apart from human resources enhancement, we have done major process re-engineering and revamped IT-enabled processing. We brought in a new numbering system for patent applications and requests for examination (RQ) on par with international practices to improve electronic processing. RQs in the four branch offices filed in a particular examination group have been merged to form a single queue based on filing date, and are allocated for examination automatically through a system to avoid discrepancies. Now, auto allocation of RQs is done irrespective of the number of examiners or controllers at a specific patent office location.
Further, physical presence of an examiner at a particular location has also become insignificant. Another change was re-engineering of procedures like allocation of applications for examination, re-allotment of applications within the examination group to balance the work allotment, and evaluation of an examiner's work by a controller through the module. All these have sped up processing of applications. We have also made procedural changes to bring in more transparency and accuracy.
We have strengthened the internal supervision system for effective monitoring and quality control of examination on a regular basis, and introduced an electronic payment gateway for international applications (PCT) from April 2016 to avoid delay in transmission of fees for such applications to the International Bureau and International Searching Authority. Besides, we have strengthened the IT infrastructure to provide working space for a large number of examiners and controllers with over 400 workstations. Our website has been made more informative, interactive and user-friendly with e-filing modules. At the legislative level, patent rules were amended on May 16, 2016, to remove procedural inconsistencies and unnecessary steps in patent processing. The government provided `78 crore in 2015/16, and `126 crore in 2016/17 for the modernisation of IP offices. Next year, we expect this provision to be Rs 213 crore.
A recent report by the Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC) has ranked India 43rd in a 45-country list on the basis of the IP environment. Your views.
These are views of a US industry lobby group that has commercial interests. Indian IP rules and systems are on a par with, if not better than, that of many developed nations, and are compliant with TRIPS and Doha Declaration. Their major objection is related to pharmaceutical patents and provision of Section 3 (d) of our patent Act that refers to incremental innovations. The UN Committee on Health has lauded the Indian Patent Act for protecting the interests of poor people. Countries such as Argentina, the Philippines and New Zealand have accepted and incorporated some of our provisions in their patent laws to protect the health of their citizens. I would like to say that pharma and biotech patents constitute only 3-5 per cent of the patent applications we handle; it is not fair for anyone to brand our patent environment as a whole for it.
How much have businesses gained from the trademark law? How are disputes and pendency issues being handled?
India has a well-established trademark legislation which is fully compliant with its international obligations. However, due to insufficient infrastructure, it could not keep pace with the growing trademark applications. In spite of the efforts made by the registry, the processing of trademark applications got delayed due to shortage of human recourses, limited use of IT infrastructure, etc. Pendency in the examination of trademark applications was about 14 months in 2014/15. Last year, we added 100 examiners on a contract basis. With automation and streamlining of the processes and infrastructure, we are now on a par with international standards. Data from the previous year's reports show that overall acceptance of the applications filed for registration in a particular year is about 50 per cent. However, acceptance for publication at the level of examination was just 9-10 per cent. This indicated that the applications which could have been accepted at earlier stages were being pushed to the later stages, thereby increasing the backlog. This has led to streamlining of the examination process and increasing the acceptance for publication up to 35 per cent.
We also created a separate module, the 'Pre-hearing Module', where cases in which hearing was fixed have been shifted for reconsideration. Under this process, 1.78 lakh applications have been reconsidered, out of which 72,000 were published without any hearing. The pendency in examination of trademark application has been reduced to less than a month as on January 31, 2017, compared to more than a year in the corresponding period of the last financial year. The disposal rate at every stage has also increased, and it is expected that pendency will be more streamlined at every stage in the near future. The number of trademark applications filed improved by 34 per cent in 2015/16, and the number of applications examined increased by 75 per cent by the end of January this year.