27 November 2014Patents

EPO: trouble at the top

At the AIPPI World IP Congress in Toronto in September, Benoît Battistelli, the president of the European Patent Office (EPO), agreed to meet WIPR at the EPO stand. Rather than having an informal chat there, we were taken to a quiet room nearby with a large oval table at its centre, for an exclusive interview.

Although we’d been asked to provide some questions in advance, he said he had not seen them so we began by putting to him some of those provided. They were based on a series of critical emails sent earlier to WIPR’s news editor by EPO staff.

Battistelli responded by claiming that there was a “defamation campaign” against him. As WIPR had by then run a series of stories on its website based on the EPO staff’s complaints, it appeared he was referring to us.

However, Battistelli said no. His complaint was broader. The EPO staff union, he said, was organising the campaign and had been “contacting the media throughout Europe” to complain about issues such as a perceived lack of transparency at the EPO and poor governance.

We explained that the complaints sent to us appeared to have come from individual staff members, who for obvious reasons had asked us to protect their identities, rather than from the union, although we couldn’t be sure. Battistelli dismissed this.

The union, he said, “had sent letters all over Europe,” yet, despite its criticism, his mandate to run the EPO had been extended.

In the interests of balance, having written several times about the internal criticism of the EPO, we ran the interview with the president on our website, only to receive more complaints from inside the organisation. In particular, the staff union challenged Battistelli to prove that it had been lying after his accusation that it was running a “defamation” campaign.

In an open letter, the EPO’s staff union said none of the information it had published had been false, and challenged Battistelli to prove otherwise.

Battistelli was urged to deny several allegations about his governance, including criticisms that he does not have to report to anyone, that key decisions are taken behind closed doors and that intimidation had been used as a managerial tool.

So what are some of the other issues alienating the president from the union and at least some of the EPO’s employees?

Among the union’s concerns are new staff investigation guidelines and an alleged lack of freedom of communication between the union and other staff members. Two strikes have been organised at the office since March and staff voted  in favour of a third strike in October.

The staff letter said: “If Mr Battistelli is so certain of being in the right, perhaps he should stop invoking immunity from jurisdiction and let independent courts and national labour inspectorates do their job and assess objectively what is truly going on at the EPO.”

In the Toronto interview with WIPR, Battistelli had talked about a modernisation plan underway at the EPO and the resistance he said there had been from the union.

The plan, he said, is going very well. Moreover, Battistelli said: “The staff haven’t resisted the technical changes [that have been introduced] but some of them are resisting changes in the social relationship between management and staff.

“The trade union has had a monopoly on staff representation. They were more or less controlling the office. You can’t manage an office like that. We need to make reforms, and these are clearly explained in what we call our road map,” Battistelli added.

Asked if there should be wider representation on the EPO’s Administrative Council, he said that its members represent the sovereign states contracted to the EPO. “Mostly they are heads of the national offices but many other professionals are there as observers,” Battistelli added.

As for transparency, he said: “Since I became president I’ve proposed the publication of most council documents.

“Not many public organisations are doing so much in terms of transparency.”

Battistelli said that because the union had accused him of “non-accountability, non-transparency and dictatorship”, that didn’t mean the allegations are true. “Their aim was to destabilise me, force me to resign or get me fired. But the opposite has happened. My mandate has been prolonged by four years,” he said.

"In a sign of how poor relations between Battistelli and EPO employees have become, staff have now voted in favour of their third strike since March this year."

Battistelli, who is French, has been president of the EPO since July 2012 and his mandate now runs until June 2018. The Administrative Council, the supervisory body of the EPO, extended his term in office in June, following a two-day meeting. It also gave its “continued support” to the EPO’s quality and efficiency strategy adopted in 2011.

A graduate of the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies and the National School of Administration, Battistelli was previously a senior civil servant in the French Ministry of the Economy and Finance.

He chaired the supervisory board of the European Patent Academy from July 2005 to July 2008, and was chairman of the Administrative Council from March 2009 to June 2010 after serving as its deputy chairman from December 2006 to March 2009.

Battistelli has also been deputy mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the western suburbs of Paris and is currently a member of the city council there. He has been awarded the title of professor honoris causa by Renmin University of China in Beijing, and an honorary doctorate by the Menéndez Pelayo University in Santander.

The EPO staff union, known as SUEPO, says on its website: “In the first instance, SUEPO represents the interests of EPO staff in general and those of its members in particular.” It adds: “Public interest is our interest.”

“The keyword is innovation,” it says. “Innovation is the driving force behind the European economy and provides employment for our members. We are in the best position to do it. Patenting is a complex issue and citizens must be better informed of the functioning and the relevance of patents.”

In a sign of how poor relations between Battistelli and EPO employees have become, staff have now voted in favour of their third strike since March this year. A proposed strike on October 14, the day before a meeting of the Administrative Council, was delayed after an accusation that such action would have been “without merit”, but a vote on further action later in the month was agreed. Strike action has also been planned at the EPO’s other sites in The Hague and Berlin.

In a notice sent to staff and seen by WIPR, Battistelli said strike action should be a “last resort” and that he had met the office’s Munich-based central staff committee (CSC) on October 10.

“The refusal by the members of the CSC to enter into any meaningful discussion of the issues at stake means that a strike ballot becomes inevitable, even though the claims made in the petition are without objective merit,” he wrote.

However, EPO staff continued to express their concerns about changes at the office, including the abolition of new staff investigation guidelines. They called for freedom of communication for unions and other staff members, and expressed concerns about changes to strike regulations, and alterations to starting salaries and career prospects.

In June, WIPR reported that a call for a strike had been criticised by EPO management, which said industrial action might create confusion at a time when new staff representatives were being elected. However, staff rejected the claims as an excuse to brush away the issues.

“This new call for a strike comprises the same claims as the former petition concerning the reforms that are already implemented,” a letter sent to staff and seen by WIPR said.

In order to go ahead with strike action, at least 40% of staff are required to vote on whether to take action, and at least 50% of those voting must be in favour of it. Whether this threshold has been met is checked by the EPO’s administrative staff before any action is confirmed.

In September, WIPR revealed that the CSC had asked anti-corruption organisation Transparency International (TI) to assess the EPO’s governance and that TI had offered its services to the Administrative Council but had not at that stage received a response.

“As the EPO plays an important leading role in developing an effective global patent system, TI would like to take the opportunity to offer our support and experience in promoting a culture of integrity and good governance,” TI said.

In a further sign of the breakdown of good relations between EPO management and staff, WIPR reported, there were allegations that staff representatives at the EPO had been excluded from a meeting of its supervisory body, contrary to established practice. CSC representatives were prevented from attending an Administrative Council session on October 15, it was alleged.

And, another possible sign that all is not well at the EPO, as WIPR revealed in October, was that the EPO had parted company with its director of communications and official spokesperson in unexplained circumstances.

The EPO announced that Oswald Schröder left “by mutual consent” on October 10 and, while the reasons for his departure are unknown at the time of writing, there were reports within the office that Schröder was suspended from active duty and that his mobile phone and official EPO identification had been confiscated.

With conflicting views from the president and his staff, it really is hard to know what to make of the goings on at the EPO.

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More on this story

18 March 2015   A group of staff at the European Patent Office has written to the office’s supervisory body, the Administrative Council, explaining why it thinks the office’s president Benoît Battistelli is “bad for Europe”.
13 May 2015   Staff at the European Patent Office have called for another demonstration and have said actions will take place every month until their grievances have been resolved.
17 June 2015   The European Patent Office’s staff union has claimed that its longstanding concerns about data protection procedures at the office raise questions about the EPO’s ability to administer the unitary patent.