It's time for all sides in the EPO dispute to see sense; the only current winners are anti-patent campaigners

Full disclosure: IAM has collaborated with the European Patent Office on many occasions. As a business we have received sponsorship from the agency, we have also worked with it as a (non-fee paying) supporting organisation on some of our events and we produce the Patents in Europe supplement every 18 months with it – again, no money changes hands, but the EPO does contribute copy and undertake some distribution. What’s more, I have spoken at several EPO-organised events in the past (and am due to do so again next month) and have received expenses for doing so. We work with the EPO because it is one of the world’s most important patent issuing authorities and, what’s more, is considered by our readership to offer the highest quality service and output of any of the IP5.

But while we are proud of our relationship with the EPO, what we also do is ensure that internally there is a very strict division between the business side of our operation and the editorial side. As editor of IAM I take no part in any commercial negotiations with the office and have no knowledge of their content or clauses. We do this specifically because it is vital that our editorial product remains entirely unaffected by the commercial relationships we have. At no stage have I, as editor, ever been asked by either the business side of our operation or by the EPO  to moderate or change any content we have produced, neither have I ever been asked to overlook a story. That’s good, because I would never agree.

I say all this because as a result of what I am about to write IAM will be accused by some of being a mouthpiece for the EPO, of being compromised and of allowing its coverage to be affected by financial relationships it has with the office. For such commentators, it is impossible that publications and blogs do not cover events at the agency in the way they do because they have different sources or see things differently; instead, it is because they have a vested interest in sticking slavishly to a line set out by a “corrupt” senior EPO management and “gangster in chief” EPO president Benoît Battistelli. So, with all that in mind, here goes.

EPO staff union SUEPO and senior management at the office have been engaged in a long running dispute. It revolves around attempts by senior management to introduce new working practices at the office. It has been going on for at least seven years and pre-dates the arrival of Battistelli as president of the office by at least two years.  

SUEPO claims that the changes being introduced will have the practical effect of reducing the incomes and pension rights of examiners while making them work harder and putting them under greater stress; this, the union says, will reduce the quality of the EPO’s output. The union claims that its officials and other staff members have been intimidated and that the human rights of office staff generally have been grossly infringed. Office management, they say, has no interest in negotiation – it is only interested in imposing its will. What’s more, it is happy to compromise the office’s reputation for integrity and neutrality in the search for additional income.   

For its part, senior office management claims that changes to EPO working practices are absolutely essential: the number of applications the office is receiving is increasing, as is competition among issuing authorities. If applicants do not get timely, responsive service they will look elsewhere. This will leave the office financially exposed and will reduce Europe’s influence in the patent world. EPO examiners have the best deal by far of any examining corps anywhere and that is not going to change; while reforms will not – and have not – affected the quality of the EPO’s output. SUEPO is being unreasonable and increasingly intimidatory in its behaviour, senior managers say, and has to see reason.

Basically, what we have here is a classic union v management stand-off. It is a very bitter one in which neither side is covering itself in glory. There are accusations and there are counter-accusations. What I would strongly urge those who are trying to work out what the hell is going on to do is to ask themselves about what they see reported and whether it represents a genuinely balanced view of events. Think about who stands to gain from what is written and revealed, and whether, just possibly, there might be another side which is being ignored and/or traduced; seek, also, to separate anecdote from evidence; and always explore context, do not see things in isolation. That’s what we as a publication seek to do.

For what it’s worth, I sympathise with examiners who feel they are being put under too much pressure and believe that what they are being asked to do will compromise the quality of their output, as well as leaving them worse off. These concerns deserve to be considered. Change is never a comfortable thing. It is also undoubtedly the case that senior EPO management – both in its current and previous incarnations – could have handled things better by listening more and dictating less, and that the relationship senior office leaders have with the Administrative Council often comes across as being far too cosy.

However, I do not believe that either the EPO’s management or the Administrative Council has any interest in compromising quality – they understand as well as anyone that quality is one of the main selling points the EPO has. They also have to see the bigger picture and that does mean asking examiners to do more – there is no other realistic alternative at a time when applications are rising and service demands from applicants are increasing. And it is the case that, quite rightly, EPO staff probably have the best terms and conditions of any examining corps out there, which is probably why attrition rates at the office are so low. The fact is that sometimes managements have to make tough decisions that cannot be delayed. That is the nature of the job.  

Over and above this, with every story that emerges I become more convinced of the need for transparency. Not only as it relates to the office and its functioning, but also from the staff union. For example, if you make claims about physical and mental intimidation of your representatives by senior management, let’s see independent verification of that. If you state quality will decline as a result of reforms and have been doing so for years, where is your proof? There should be some by now, surely. And let’s talk, too, about the actions of some union officials and whether they really are doing their best by their members. Why is it that after more than seven years SUEPO has achieved so little?

At its heart, this long-running dispute is about pay and conditions. Because of that it can be resolved. But there needs to be goodwill on both sides. Sadly, this is currently in short supply. But it has to be found. What is now at stake is not only the authority of senior managers and the career paths of examiners, but also the reputation of the EPO as one of the world’s most important and influential issuing authorities, at a time when the creation of the unitary EU patent and the Unified Patent Court system promise to put it and Europe generally at the very centre of the global patent market. Anti-patent campaigners in Europe hate the fact that this might happen, so you can understand the agenda they have and the way they report current events. If the EPO is tarnished, they win. Everyone else, however, loses; and that includes all applicants, examiners, SUEPO, the Administrative Council and the office leadership. It is time for everyone to see sense.

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