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Digital signature

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Electronic signature

The German Patent and Trade Mark Office (DPMA) accepts electronic IP applications. The request has to bear a qualified electronic signature of the applicant so that the sender can be clearly authenticated.

A list of accepted suppliers of signature cards is available at Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway).

For use of the DPMAdirektPro service, we additionally accept the following qualified signatures of the international organisations in the field of industrial property protection listed here (Sec. 3(3) Ordinance Concerning the Electronic Legal Transactions with the German Patent and Trade Mark Office [Verordnung über den elektronischen Rechtsverkehr beim Deutschen Patent- und Markenamt]):

  • Online Services Smart Card of the European Patent Office EPO

How the qualified electronic signature works

A qualified electronic signature is a type of seal for digital data. It is created by using mathematical methods and a private key. A corresponding public key can be used to verify the signature any time, and hence to identify the holder of the signature key and to check the data for authenticity.

Each unique pair of keys (private key and public key) is allocated to an individual natural person by officially recognised bodies. The allocation is attested by a qualified certificate of the signature key. This is a signed digital document which contains the respective public key and the name of the person to which it is allocated or a pseudonym. The holder of the signature key receives the certificate so that they can attach the signed data for verification. Furthermore, it is verifiable by anybody, any time, via publicly available telecommunication links (e.g. Internet).

The significance of the electronic signature

The development of information and communication technology opens new possibilities: orders for goods, payment instructions to banks, official requests or objections, all these can be done online now. The transmission of sensitive health data and a large number of communication relationships that were handled on paper in the past are now also processed electronically, though it is not always guaranteed that they actually are legally binding.

That is why there is a need for a digital solution for a legally binding signature: the electronic signature. In this context, the Signature Act (Signaturgesetz) distinguishes the following types of electronic signatures according to security requirements in ascending order:

  • simple electronic signature
  • advanced electronic signature
  • qualified electronic signature

The security infrastructure for qualified electronic signatures provided for by law allows to reliably identify authorship and verify the integrity of the data in electronic legal and business transactions. Hence, the electronic signature constitutes an equivalent substitute for the handwritten signature and can have a corresponding legal effect.

The signature certificate required for this purpose must be issued by an accredited certification service provider.

Why signing and encrypting?

The signing of a message is not the same as the encryption of a message. When you sign a message you add a type of personal seal to it which identifies you as the sender of the message and excludes the subsequent falsification of data. However, the digital signature does not protect your document from unauthorised inspection but neither will a handwritten signature on a paper document protect it from inspection by others.
For this purpose, you must additionally encrypt your document. Encryption is often an additional option provided by the application software. Both functions are important in electronic data transfer. They can be used simultaneously or independently of each other.

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Picture: iStock.com/creisinger

Last updated: 10/12/18 

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