When the U.S. Patent Classification (USPC) first was introduced as the taxonomic system with which the country’s patent office would categorize all new inventions, Andrew Jackson was president of the United States. There were only three states west of the Mississippi River, and the hot invention of the year was Samuel Colt’s eponymous revolver. For the ensuing 178 years, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has continued to use that same system to keep track of the inventions to which it grants intellectual property protection.

In just a few months, though, that classification system will be relegated to history and a new one will take its place.

Jointly developed by the USPTO and the European Patent Office (EPO), the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system soon will replace the two agencies’ own systems, the European Classification and the USPC. The countries of Europe officially began using the new system on Jan. 2, 2013, and the United States is scheduled to implement it at the beginning of 2015. The two agencies had announced their partnership in 2010, though informal discussions had been taking place for years before that.

It remains to be seen what the new, harmonized classification system in Europe and the United States will mean for the International Patent Classification system, developed under a 1971 treaty of the World Intellectual Property Organization. WIPO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, calls the international system the “lingua franca” of patent classification and says it is used by the patent offices of more than 100 countries.

In a real sense, the Cooperative Patent Classification is a direct descendant of the International Patent Classification. The CPC mostly retains and extends the classification system of the European Classification, which was, in turn, an extension of the International Classification. The CPC dwarfs its grandparent, though, boasting more than 250,000 categories and subcategories into which a patented invention might fall. The IPC features only about 70,000 entries.

The World Intellectual Property Organization acknowledges the greater detail of the CPC, which allows for more precise classification, and has indicated that the CPC will guide future annual revisions of the IPC. WIPO will continue to issue annual revisions of the IPC, and as yet there are no official plans to merge the two systems.

For its part, the CPC already has enjoyed a substantial amount of international recognition. Notably, both Russia and China already have agreed to provisionally adopt some CPC classifications, and China has agreed to begin using the system for all new patent applications starting in January 2016.

In June 2014, the USPTO announced that South Korea’s patent authority, the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO), would expand its use of the CPC system to classify patent filings for 50 additional technical fields, beginning in 2015. The USPTO called the move “a major step towards KIPO classifying its patent collection using the CPC.”

According to Commissioner for Patents Peggy Focarino, the CPC will increase USPTO patent examiner efficiency by making it faster and easier to complete a prior art search in comparison to current USPTO patent search, in addition to providing greater access to documents from patent offices around the world. The CPC allows more targeted searches with more focused results than the current U.S. Patent Classification System and should help reduce some of the duplication inherent in the former system.

USPTO examiners have been training on the CPC since November 2013, a process that was expected to last through 2014, according to a February 2014 blog post by Focarino. The training has focused on effectively searching with the CPC and the appropriate placement of CPC symbols on published patent applications and granted patents. Each examiner is receiving 20 hours of classroom training, followed by approximately 120 hours of on-the-job training that includes conducting parallel searches in CPC as well as the prior U.S. Patent Classification (USPC) system for 40-50 applications.

Full implementation of the CPC in the United States begins in January.

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