On the 1st January 2013 a new patent classification scheme will be introduced, the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC).
At present there is the International Patent Classification (IPC) which is printed on virtually all newly published patent specifications; the US classification, which is printed on American patents; and ECLA, which is a more precise breakdown of the IPC to allow for more detailed classes, and which is sponsored and used by the European Patent Office.
ECLA classes are added to the European Patent Office's Espacenet database for, broadly speaking, US patents, many European countries, the European patent scheme and the "World" PCT scheme, and is not printed on patent specifications. Its usage as applied to old printed material goes back to 1920 and sometimes earlier, depending on the country. It often takes many months to apply the ECLA to newly published patent specifications.
IPC looks like B62B7/14, rotatable children's carriages. ECLA classes can be the same but are often more precise. In this case for example /14 is divided into three possible subclasses by adding a letter, such as B62B7/14R, which contains the idea of such carriages which transform from seating to lying positions.
In 2010 the US Patent Office and the European Patent Office agreed to merge the best aspects of the US and ECLA classifications to form the CPC with (estimates vary) 200,000-250,000 classes. ECLA had 140,000 classes. At present only the European Patent Office applies ECLA, but the US will also classify by CPC.
CPC will resemble ECLA but will use longer numbers to replace the old ECLA letters at the end of classes. The US scheme is strong in "business methods", for example, software to carry out a commercial function, and numerous extra classes will go in G06Q10. The cross-reference art collections and digests, which cover interesting concepts which are not themselves patentable, will be added to the Y area already in ECLA which at present mainly covers climate change and green technologies. An example of such a new class is Y10S101/40, means of printing on golf balls.
The new scheme means savings for the offices, and hopefully better access by searchers to detailed classes for inventions, but is likely to mean a lot of work for those organisations which offer patent databases, as the old ECLA material will all have to be reclassified. Searchers will also have to adapt their work and strategies (especially current awareness).
In December 2012, rather than January 2013, Espacenet will switch to CPC. This means that only CPC and not ECLA will be usable on that database (but IPC as before can be used in a separate search box). Presumably as now you will be able to search by keyword as well as class on the database's classification search site. The CPC site will have a variety of help material such as tutorials and concordances to assist in the transition.
An example of what we will have is the class for steering land vehicles, B62D1. At present it contains 22 IPC subclasses and an additional 12 ECLA subdivisions for a total of 34 possible classes.
This is the current ECLA class for B62D1.
And this is the CPC class for B62D1. The complete CPC scheme can be found as separate PDFs on the official site (but you have to know which classes are of interest, as there is no index).
Switzerland has announced that it will use CPC on its printed patent specifications but it is probable that most countries will use the IPC as before, and the CPC will be used only for more detailed searching on certain databases. I get the impression that the USA at least will use the CPC on its patent specifications.
It will mean a big change for those used to US classification as this will be phased out in a few years. Details of this are on page 5 of the October issue of CPC News . Examiners will apparently be able for a while to choose either US or CPC on newly published grant documents, which sounds confusing.
A bonus, though, is that old American patents will eventually all be classified by CPC. It used to be that coverage only went back to 1920 but I've noticed pre 1900 material that can be found using ECLA on Espacenet.