Back in December 2021, I wrote about electronic signatures in light of the then recently published notice from the EPO about them being used as evidence for registering a transfer of rights. Before going any further, I recommend reading my previous post so you are familiar with the concept of digital/electronic signatures, if you are not already. In brief, the situation at the time was that, if a digital signature was to be used it would need to comply with fairly strict requirements to pass the test of being considered valid. It was evident at the time, as I tried to make clear, that a mark on a document that appeared to be a digital signature, but without the required certification, would not pass the test. Evidently, however, not everyone realised this and attempts were made to record assignments at the EPO with such documents. European application 21204983.7, filed in the name of Gyrus ACMI, Inc., is one such example, and appears to be the first one on this issue that has resulted in an appeal decision.
In March 2022, the applicant's representative filed a request pursuant to Rule 22 EPC to record a transfer of rights regarding the application. The registration fee was paid and the request was accompanied by an assignment document, purportedly signed by both parties. The signature part of the assignment document as submitted to the EPO looked like this:
"With regard to the electronic signatures attached to the Patent assignment submitted on 14 March 2022, we are unable to access the electronic certificates attached to them. We therefore cannot assess whether the signatures fulfil the requirements set out in 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 atransfer of rights under Rules 22 and 85 EPO and requests for registration of a licence or other rights under Rule 23 EPC (OJ EPO 2021,A86).Your attention is therefore drawn to the definition and requirements of a qualified electronic signature provided under Article 3(12), (15), (23) Regulation (EU) No 910/2014. Please note that the qualified electronic signatures must be electronically verifiable by an accessible qualified certificate attached thereto. Only the original (digital) format of the electronically signed document allows such verification. Scanned or similarly reproduced documents do not serve this purpose.You are therefore invited to re-submit the document in question in PDF format bearing either a verifiable electronic signatures or a handwritten signatures within two months of notification of the present communication".
Rather than going back and getting a proper digitally signed document or one with handwritten signatures, the applicant's representative argued back to the Legal Division that, because the assignment document contained text string signatures from both parties, the document should be accepted. The Legal Division disagreed, pointing out that only documents bearing qualified electronic signatures within the meaning of Regulation (EU) No 910/2014 could be accepted, according to the EPO notice of 22 October 2021. Such signatures, as pointed out by the Legal Division, "must be electronically verifiable by means of a digital qualified certificate included in the document filed. Only the original, digital format of the electronically signed document permits such verification". After some more (rather pointless) arguments from the applicant's representative, a final decision was made on 23 February 2023 to reject the request for recordal. An appeal was then filed in March 2023, arguing in part that Rule 2 EPC and the Decision of the President dated 14 May 2021 concerning the electronic filing of documents permitted assignments with text string signatures to be used for recordal purposes.
The Board of Appeal, deciding on the papers alone, issued their decision in J 5/23 on 4 September 2023 (which, incidentally, is incredibly quick for a BoA decision). The unsurprising aspect of the decision is that the Board did not agree with the appellant that the general rules for filing documents could apply also to recordal of assignments. There was, however, a substantial sting in the tail, which is that the Board have decided that electronic signatures of any kind (qualified or otherwise) do not meet the requirements of Rule 22(1) EPC. The reasoning from the Board was in essence that the definition of the word "signature" in Article 72 EPC has not been changed to allow electronic signatures. At the time the EPC entered into force, and also according to standard dictionary definitions, the word "signature" meant something written by hand. If this were to interpreted to also include electronic signatures, the question arose as to what kind of electronic signature could qualify within the meaning of Article 72 EPC. Given that Article 72 EPC required there to be clear and unambiguous formal requirements for the transfer of a European patent application, it would be at odds with this rationale if - without any explicit legal basis - any type of text in electronic form could be considered a signature (see point 2.4.5). In the Board's view, the Notice from the EPO concerning electronic signatures could not overrule the definition of a signature in Article 72 EPC. What would be required is agreement between the contracting states to provide an updated interpretation, which would apparently go beyond what the Administrative Council was able to do. The Board's concluding statement was the following:
"In conclusion, the Board, applying the general rule of interpretation pursuant to Article 31 VCLT to the term "signature" in Article 72 EPC, i.e. interpreting this term in good faith according to its ordinary meaning in the applicable context and taking account of the purpose of this legal provision, holds that this term - in the absence of a different definition in the Implementing Regulations (see point 2.11 below) - must be understood as referring to a handwritten depiction of someone's name, written on the assignment "contract" referred to in Article 72 EPC. In the absence of any such handwritten signature, an assignment agreement does not comply with the formal requirements under Article 72 EPC and, under Rule 22(3) EPC, has no effect vis-à-vis the EPO. It follows from Rule 22(3) EPC that it is beyond the EPO's jurisdiction whether or not such a contract, in cases of non-compliance with the requirements of Article 72 EPC, also has no effect between the parties to the contract themselves. If necessary, this question must be decided by the competent national court according to the applicable law regulating the consequences of non-compliance with formal requirements for contracts" (point 2.9, emphasis added).
The Board does then, however, go on to indicate that this might be fixed by changing the Rules:
"While under the present legal framework the term "signature" must be understood as referring to handwritten signatures only, Article 72 EPC does, as such, not prohibit the legislator of the Implementing Regulations to the EPC, i.e. the Administrative Council, from specifying the meaning of the term "signature" in the Implementing Regulations (see G 3/19, Reasons XXVI.4). Taking due account of the rationale underlying Article 72 EPC (see points 2.4.2 and 2.4.3 above), such a definition could include a reference to some form of electronic signature and still respect the boundaries set by Articles 72 and 164(2) EPC. Providing such a definition in the Implementing Regulations would then change the context in which the term "signature" in Article 72 EPC is interpreted pursuant to Article 31 VCLT (see points 2.5 to 2.5.6 above), both by the departments of the EPO and by national courts." (point 2.11)
The upshot of all this is that, not only is it now clear that a "text string" signature in an assignment document is not acceptable but, based on this decision, all types of electronic signatures are now considered invalid for the purposes of recording an assignment. As of right now, all practitioners will need to revise their advice to clients that assignments must have handwritten signatures. It looks like there are only two options available if the EPO wants digital signatures to get accepted. The first option would be to somehow overturn this decision by getting the Enlarged Board of Appeal to decide on the matter, although there is of course no guarantee that the Enlarged Board would decide in any other way. This could in any case only happen once there have been two conflicting decisions, so it would first need another case to decide the other way for the President or a Board of Appeal to kick the issue further upwards. Perhaps there is another appeal currently pending? The alternative, which may be far less appealing but which could be a quicker option, would be to get the Administrative Council to amend the Implementing Regulations to change the context in which the term "signature" is interpreted, as suggested in point 2.11 of the decision. For the time being, however, it appears that using electronic signatures for assignments are effectively dead in the water.
Postscript: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who has pointed out the final line in the decision (pdf version). Take a look: