Recording assignments with electronic signatures at the EPO
To record a transfer of ownership of a European patent (application) before the European Patent Office (EPO), evidence of the transfer must be provided in the form of a written document (such as an assignment) signed by all of the parties. Until recently, the only form of signature that the EPO would recognise was a handwritten signature. This therefore required assignment documents to be printed, signed by hand, and scanned before filing electronically with the EPO.
New signature rules
Following a Notice from the EPO published in OJ 2021, A86, the EPO now additionally accepts some very specific forms of electronic signature.
As explained in the notice, the EPO will now accept for the purposes of recording a transfer of ownership, assignment documents that have been signed using a qualified electronic signature as defined in EU Regulation No 910/2014.
Qualified electronic signatures
Not all electronic signatures are created equal and electronic signatures generally fall into one of three main categories: basic electronic signatures, advanced electronic signatures, and qualified electronic signatures.
- A basic electronic signature refers to any signature that is rendered digitally, (for example, where the signatory’s name is typed between slashes).
- An advanced electronic signature is an electronic signature that is uniquely linked to and capable of identifying the person signing; is created by means that the person signing can use with a high level of confidence and over which they have sole control; and is associated with the electronic document to be authenticated in such a way that any subsequent change in the data is detectable.
- A qualified electronic signature is an advanced electronic signature with a qualified digital certificate that has been created by a qualified signature creation device.
According to the EPO’s new practice, the EPO will only accept qualified electronic signatures that meet the definition provided in EU Regulation No 910/2014 (also known as the eIDAS regulation). Notably, this requires a very particular form of qualified digital certificate to be used that is ultimately backed by a supervisory governmental body in the EU.
Whilst major electronic signature platforms (for example, DocuSign®) are able to support qualified electronic signatures, in almost all cases, signatures from these platforms do not meet the requirements of the eIDAS regulation and hence will not recognised by the EPO for the purpose of recording the transfer of ownership. The requirement for a qualified electronic signature according to the eIDAS regulation is a high bar – so high that as of March 2022, the EPO had not accepted as single request for recording a transfer of ownership involving an electronic signature.
Whilst the acceptance of electronic signatures in principle represents a positive step by the EPO towards recognising a commonly-used method of signing documents, the requirement for an eIDAS-compliant qualified electronic signature will mean that in most cases, the easiest way to meet the EPO’s requirements for having a transfer of ownership recorded will be to have the documents executed with handwritten signatures.
It is also worth considering who signs the assignment document as the EPO will typically request documentary proof of the signatory’s authority to sign unless the relevant signatory is a director, president, or CEO of the relevant company. See our previous article on this subject: “EPO patent assignment recordal: signatures & evidence”.
Applicants considering filing a request for recordal of assignment should contact their usual D Young & Co patent attorney who will be happy to advise as to whether your documentation will meet the EPO’s new requirements and any further steps that should be taken.
EPO notice dated 22 October 2021
View the notice from the European Patent Office dated 22 October 2021 concerning electronic signatures on documents submitted as evidence to support requests for registration of a transfer of rights under Rules 22 and 85 EPC and requests for registration of a licence or other rights under Rule 23 EPC.Read more