There has been a worldwide surge in patent applications over the past twenty years. This has resulted in a large and growing backlog of unprocessed patent applications around the world. It is currently estimated that over 4 million patents are waiting to be processed in the world's major IP offices.
The nature of the patent system means that there will always be work waiting to be processed. How offices define backlogs varies depending on the details of the patent processing system. However, in simple terms, a backlog may be thought of as the level of workload in a patent office in comparison to the capacity to process applications.
Backlogs cause delays in obtaining patent rights. Delays prevent new products from reaching their intended markets quickly; these delays deter R&D and reduce the incentive to create and innovate. Investors are reluctant to invest in new technologies that are not protected by a granted patent and innovators can’t take action against infringers until their patent is granted.
Some applicants prefer a lengthy 'patent pending' period or pendancy time and the legal uncertainty it brings. But fast-moving, high-tech industries, such as the telecoms and life sciences sector, can be disadvantaged by a system that takes longer to grant protection than the lifetime of new products.
Backlogs are expected to continue to grow. Emerging economies such as India and China are expected to contribute more and more to the already increasing number of patent applications. A recent economics study estimated that within 5 years pendancy times across the globe could be 1 year longer than they are now , with the associated cost to the global economy being £7.6 billion.
Reducing patent backlogs is a key goal of UK government. The IPO is playing an active role in encouraging international cooperation between IP offices through worksharing to reduce backlogs.