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Civil war at the EPO

A story from the IP Kat blog site has caught my eye: staff at the EPO have apparently lost almost all trust in both the office’s President and the Administrative Council, according to a leaked internal EPO report.

According to the report, which was “submitted by the staff representatives via the President of the European Patent Office”, there is a significant conflict between Administrative Council members’ roles as guardians of the EPO and the fact that two-thirds of them hold senior positions at national patent offices; the accusation being that it is in the interests of AC members that the EPO is not as efficient as it could be, because such inefficiencies drive applicants to register patents at the national level. Furthermore, the fact that national offices retain 50% of all European patent renewal fees means that they are more interested in the number of patents granted by the EPO and far less concerned about the quality of what is being granted. And it gets worse:

“Staff furthermore perceives the attitude of the Council delegates towards staff as negative. We refer to comments made by the previous Head of the Dutch delegation and by various other Heads of Delegation in the past years. Particularly in the last two meetings of the Council, members of certain delegations have made comments implying, or even explicitly stating, that they consider EPO staff to be, among other things, unprofessional, inefficient, overpaid and malingering. Such comments are not conducive to improving the relationship between the EPO's body of highly professional and educated staff, and the Administrative Council. It has not gone unnoticed by these staff that certain of these comments even appeared to have the implicit support of the Chairman of the Council.”

Blimey! That there is tension between the EPO and many national European patent offices will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in Munich or other EPO offices. One constant theme in any conversation is how the national offices, through the Administrative Council, are more focused on their own interests than the interests of the EPO. This probably explains the negativity towards the Council in the report; I doubt that many who work full-time at the office – even in some of the most senior positions - disagree with much of what is said. The conflict that does exist could well compromise quality and efficiency a the EPO, and it is important that these issues are properly - and openly - discussed.  

As far as I can see, however, there is no mention anywhere of remuneration, though this has been a source of conflict over recent times between staff and management at the EPO. I may be being cynical here, but examiners’ worries about the future of Europe’s patent system and the self-interest of national offices, while certainly valid, may not be so great if they were paid more and had not had their pension contributions reworked in recent times. In other words, although there may be problems, they may not be as cataclysmic as the report seems to imply.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the document seems to have been leaked to the FFII, the prominent anti-software patent group. In fact, Pieter Hintjens, the FFII's president, has written his own comment about it on the organisation’s Digital Majority news site. It’s well worth reading. Among other things he writes:

It seems to me that Pompidou, though he escapes blame in this report, is not going to be missed. He oversaw the most conflictual and anti-EU period of the EPO's existence. The Software Patents Directive divided the IT sector and tried to impose US-style "patents on everything" on Europe's flourishing software sector not to mention agriculture and biotech. The European Patent Litigation Agreement took up the torch where the Directive failed, and tried to set-up a new system of courts to impose EPO authority over all Europe. These were both tragically stupid ideas. Instead of listening to society, the EPO in its arrogance has tried to impose its will on society, and is reaping the whirlwind, outside and inside its ivory walls.

This report is not the only sign of deep schisms within the EPO, set-up as a stop-gap alternative to a true Community patent. The EPO is collapsing, predictably. Setting up a for-profit administration that escaped all proper legislative and judicial oversight was a real mistake. Now the players are fighting over the spoils and with thirty years of resentment coming to the boil, it's unlikely that anyone is going to back down.

There is only one satisfactory outcome to this story, and that is the integration of the EPO into the EU, which will resolve the conflicts of interests and hopefully also hammer some sense into a patent system that seems to have lost all notion of ethics and service. Don't forget: the founding basis for a patent system is to encourage inventors to document and disclose their precious secrets. A money machine is as impossible as a perpetual motion machine.

I wonder if IBM's VP of IP Dave Kappos, who is sharing a platform with Hintjens at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 20th June, agrees with this analysis.


Joff Wild
IAM Magazine
12 June 2007

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