Joff Wild

Over recent years, the relationship between senior management and staff at the European Patent Office has frequently been strained. Under the presidencies of both Alain Pompidou and Alison Brimelow examiners and other staff at the office took industrial action, claiming that reforms being instituted by both were going to adversely affect employees’ terms and conditions, as well as compromise the quality of the EPO product. When I met with new president Benoît Battistelli in Munich earlier this month, it was clear that he wanted to draw a line under these difficulties.

“Being in charge of the EPO is much more than running a patent office,” Battistelli told me at the start of our interview. “We are not part of any international legal framework, or under the control of a body such as the UN or the EU. Instead, we are completely independent – which means we must decide for ourselves our own rules and principles, and face challenges by ourselves.” Before becoming president, he said, he had not realised the full implications of this. “I am responsible for a community of 40,000 people,” Battistelli explained; this number is made up not only of staff, but their spouses and children, as well as retired EPO workers. “Many aspects of their lives – such as healthcare, their kids’ educations, and their pensions – depend on decisions that we make. This does not happen in a national office,” he said; and it is the reason why “relations between the staff and the management are so intense”.

Battistelli said that he was well aware of the low levels of trust that existed between top management and the EPO council on one side, and staff on the other, when he took over last July – after all, he had been sitting on the council for a number of years. He made it a priority, he explained, to open a dialogue with staff and their representatives as soon as he could. He began on his very first day. “My first action was to organise a meeting with all the staff in the Munich office. I invited them all to come to one of the big conference rooms we have and 1,800 turned up. I addressed them for 30 minutes to explain my plans and then answered questions,” Battistelli said. The next day he went to The Hague and did the same thing there. In total in his first two days on the job, he spoke directly to 3,000 staff members. Then he embarked upon a series of meetings with their representatives.

“It is important to have a trustful ad respectful relationship with staff, as well as transparency in decision making,” Battistelli said. This is the way to bring them with you if you believe changes need to be made. To this end, he continued, he has sought to make the General Advisory Council of the EPO – the composition of which is 50% management and 50% staff representatives – more than the “procedural necessity” it was seen as in the past. “I attach real importance to it and I have changed some of the decisions I have made after hearing opinions from representatives who sit on it,” Battistelli said. Transparency is also vital, he stated. As president he has commissioned two external reports: one on the state of the office’s finances (see more below) and the other on its IT infrastructure. Although the findings have not been released publicly, they have been made available to all staff via the EPO intranet. “I hope that the conditions for a positive social dialogue are being created,” Battistelli said.

Having worked as a public servant throughout his career, Battistelli told me that he shared the same outlook as the EPO staff. “This office is not like a private body which is concerned about making profits. It is about turning applications into high quality grants. I have huge admiration for entrepreneurs because they create value, but a good public system can do that too,” he stated. It can only do so, however, if everyone is pulling in the same direction. And although he did not say this, I got the very strong impression that he felt that in recent times senior management and council members had not been doing all that they could in this regard. “I want respectful dialogue,” Battistelli told me. “That’s not just words, I mean what I say.”

When she took over the presidency, many of Alison Brimelow’s earliest public utterances concerned what she regarded as the parlous state of the EPO’s finances and how this meant there had to be serious reforms to working practices and conditions at the office. Battistelli sees things slightly differently. “We have the capacity to fulfil our ambitions. I have never shared the view that the EPO is in danger of going bankrupt,” he said. While he conceded that the office did not have the money in its reserves to fund pension payments due to be made 20 to 30 years from now, he observed that not many other organisations or businesses do either. “Under IFRS we have to find money to fund commitments even if they are 35 years in the future and it is true that we are in a negative position on that front. But that is normal. We can precisely calculate the fees we will be generating; it’s just that we do not have the money in the books yet,” he explained. But when it comes to financing activities over the next 10 to 15 years in areas such as IT, training and even new buildings, there are no problems, he claimed.

So was Brimelow wrong to speak in the terms that she did?. Batistelli did not give me a direct answer, instead stating: “When I was a member of the council, I very clearly expressed the view that you must distinguish operational capacity from long-term obligations, if you don’t you end up transforming the EPO into a pension fund.” And that is not what it is there for, he said. “The office was not created just to serve pensions to former staff. We are here to create patents. We have to develop our capacity to do this. If we do, we will be able to meet our obligations.” In other words, if the EPO does the job it is supposed to do in issuing quality patents in a timely fashion, applicants will continue to use it in high numbers and the rest will look after itself. The key, therefore is to make sure users carry on using the EPO; and that takes us back to some of the issues discussed in my first report on the interview.

In the final instalment, to be published on this blog at the beginning of March, Battistelli talks about his election and its lack of transparency, the potential for a single EU patent and litigation system, and gives his views on the fees the EPO may charge in the future.