News analysis: A poisoned chalice for the EPO’s new boss?

01-12-2017

News analysis: A poisoned chalice for the EPO’s new boss?

With staff morale one of the pressing challenges facing the EPO’s president-elect António Campinos, WIPR considers whether he can bring staff and management closer together.

For the past three years, WIPR has been reporting on staff unrest at the European Patent Office (EPO), where strikes and demonstrations have shone a light on numerous internal tensions. In a sign of how serious the divisions have become, the Dutch Supreme Court was asked to rule on the dispute earlier this year, ultimately finding that courts in the Netherlands do not have jurisdiction over the ongoing battle.

Staff morale is undoubtedly one of the first challenges that the next EPO president, António Campinos, will need to assess and tackle when he takes over from Benoît Battistelli in July 2018. Campinos, who is currently head of the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), will inherit a “very unhappy workforce for many, many reasons”, says Robert Sackin, partner at Reddie & Grose.

There is currently a “poisonous climate” between staff and management, adds Thorsten Bausch, patent attorney at Hoffmann Eitle.

This is not an environment that any new manager would want to face, but there are at least three goods reasons why Campinos may be able to break the deadlock.

First, the new era will provide a natural break from the past, a time for reflection on both sides.

Second, based on his past record, Campinos may be well placed to facilitate a thawing in relations. 

Daniel Wise, partner at Carpmaels & Ransford, says his trademark colleagues tell him Campinos is known for leading motivated and collaborative teams at the EUIPO, “which bodes well for the EPO”.

Sackin says that while an immediate “charm offensive” would surely help, making the right changes to address the EPO staff’s many grievances will not be easy and it would be “extremely arrogant even to suggest a quick fix”.

However he approaches the challenge, Campinos will need to improve morale so the staff are on side with maintaining improvements and meeting further challenges ahead, including the increasing number of European patent applications being filed year on year, Sackin adds.

In 2016, the EPO recorded an “unprecedented” level of filings of more than 296,000, an increase of 6.2% compared with 2015. It also granted a record 96,000 patents, which represented a 40% year-on-year rise.

The third reason to maintain hope is that staff—or at least some of them—have already shown a willingness to work with Campinos to re-establish harmonious working conditions. In a letter sent to the president-elect in October, the Staff Union of the European Patent Office’s (SUEPO) Hague branch said it is ready to embark on “a road to fruitful cooperation”.

As the largest staff union at the EPO, SUEPO told Campinos that it wishes to take part in this process with a “constructive attitude if there is a willingness on his side to create propitious premises”. It proposed bringing in an external expert and moderator, and said that a social dialogue shaped by trust and cooperation between staff, management and the Administrative Council must be re-established.

Another staff-related challenge facing Campinos concerns the EPO’s appeal boards. Bausch says the “excessively long” duration of appeal proceedings—on average more than four years and in some cases more than five—is due to understaffing. More judges are required, he says.

Sackin adds that the boards are not up to strength and that there are backlogs.

“Campinos will want to improve this, but he’s going to arrive to face understaffed, unhappy boards of appeal with whom his predecessor does not get on—that requires an injection of highly skilled and experienced people,” he says.

The boards are integrated in the EPO’s organisational structure, but are independent of the office in their decisions, Sackin says, adding that, “as I understand Battistelli has found, it is not possible to deal with the boards without impeding their independence, and changing them is never going to be easy”.

“As such, this will be a major challenge for Campinos when he arrives in office.”

However, an EPO spokesperson told WIPR that in 2017, the EPO will reach its best-ever results, adding: “Implementation of the reform of the boards of appeal has only just started under the leadership of their new president, Carl Josefsson.”

There will be many more pressing issues for Campinos to consider when he joins, if he is not thinking about them already, and WIPR will cover them next year. But for now, EPO staff and stakeholders alike will be hoping that July 2018 marks the start of a new era for staff-management relations.

António Campinos, EPO, News analysis, patent, SUEPO, Benoît Battistelli, European Patent Office

WIPR