According to the World Economic Forum 2016, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), building on the third industrial revolution, i.e. the digital revolution of information and communication technologies (ICT), is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological fields. 4IR issues have been a hot topic in many countries and territories around the world. As key technologies of the 4IR, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, big data, robotics and cyber-physical systems (CPS) have been extensively addressed in most expert reports. These 4IR technologies are expected to create up to $3.7 trillion in value by 2025, and global competition to be the leader in 4IR technologies is heating up.

In the era of the 4IR, intellectual property in the form of patents, designs, trade marks and copyrights can be especially valuable. It is well known that global companies have utilised intellectual property as economic moats. This trend can be easily understood from the statistics showing a steep 12-fold increase in worldwide patent registrations for 4IR technologies from 2010 to 2015.

According to the 2017 EPO Report Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the USA, Europe and Japan have been the top innovators in 4IR technologies, and EP applications from South Korea and China have been on the rise in recent years.  Furthermore, the report shows that core technology innovation is largely concentrated in a limited number of large ICT companies, such as Samsung, LG, Sony, GE and Google.

Statistical data from the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) also shows that the number of Korean patent applications for 4IR technologies is rapidly increasing.

To keep pace with the 4IR, the KIPO has recently introduced and implemented new IP policies geared toward 4IR technologies.

New technology classification system for seven core 4IR technologies

Patents related to 4IR technologies have problems in that they cannot be clearly sorted according to the existing patent classification system due to their innovative characteristics such as super-connection, super-intelligence and convergence.

In order to resolve these issues and establish suitable patent examination guidelines reflecting the attributes of the 4IR, the KIPO has established a new technology classification system for seven core 4IR technologies: AI, Big Data, IoT, 3D printing, autonomous driving, intelligent robotics and cloud computing. From January 2018, the KIPO has begun using this classification system for these seven core technical fields.

This new classification system is expected to be useful in dealing with the 4IR for various government policies in industry, science and technology sectors, as well as in patent examination.

Expedited examination


The KIPO has revised the Enforcement Decree of the Korean Design Protection Act (effective as of January 2 2018) to expand eligible subjects for expedited examination so that applicants can request expedited examination for design registration applications directly related to the fourth industrial revolution, such as AI or robot technology. If a request for expedited examination is filed, the examination period, which is generally more than five months, can be shortened to two months. For example, designs related to AI-based personal robots and conferencing hub devices based on IoT and unified communications can enjoy the benefit of expedited IP registration.


Expedited examination will be available for patent applications related to the seven 4IR technologies above from around May 2018. A request for accelerated examination can speed up the examination, allowing one to receive a patent within about 5.7 months on average, which is shorter than the normal examination process of about 16.4 months. In consideration of the unique characteristics of the 4IR (super-connection, super-intelligence, convergence), the KIPO plans to actively carry out the three-examiner consultation system.

In the era of the 4IR, it is more important to secure intellectual property quickly since different technologies are converging and innovation is occurring rapidly. Therefore, these changes in the KIPO’s IP system will provide greater opportunities for applicants. 

Updates to examination guidelines with regard to 4IR technology inventions

The KIPO’s patent/utility model examination guidelines, revised in January 2018, present specific cases for determining the inventiveness of inventions related to the fourth industrial revolution.

4IR technology inventions differ from those in other technical fields in that they are achieved through the convergence of different technologies, or are characterised by super-intelligence or super-connection on existing technologies. In principle, the general jurisprudence of judging the inventive step of an invention, which is based on technical difficulty and remarkable effects, also applies to these inventions. The revised guidelines, disclosing 14 example cases, have added that the inventive step can be recognised if there are any special difficulties in convergence, super-intelligence, or super-connection of technologies, or if there is an advantageous effect beyond effects predictable from the prior art.

For example, for inventions of IoT-related technologies, if there is an advantageous effect over the prior art resulting from the utilisation of information obtained by connecting the object to the network, the advantageous effect can be positively considered when determining an inventive step.

It is expected that the revised guidelines will be able to support more accurate, consistent and unbiased patent examination for fourth industrial revolution technologies in the future.