My hopes for some progress resulting from this week's meeting of the Administrative Council (AC) of the European Patent Organisation (EPOrg), the multinational body that runs the European Patent Office (EPO), haven't been exceeded by much, but I'm not disappointed either. Late on Thursday, a joint statement by the Chairman of the AC (Jesper Kongstad) and the EPO president (Benoît Battistelli) was published.
They promise to "launch new initiatives to restore social peace" and call for a "renewed social dialogue." The statement gets slightly more specific in that the first step could be "the formal recognition of the trade unions within the EPO's legal framework", and they "invite the trade unions of the EPO to a dedicated kick off meeting on 22 April 2015."
I believe SUEPO as a trade union speaks for the EPO staff at large. There's also an Association of the Members of the Boards of Appeal (AMBA) with a new website. It appears to me that AMBA's focus is on specifically judicial issues.
It could be that the EPO's leadership is pursuing a "divide and conquer" strategy so it doesn't have to face a united front of all EPO staff. If that is indeed the strategy, then it remains to be seen whether it will work out.
The announcement suggests that the EPO must now take some action based on the legal framework it has in place or that some amendment to the EPO's rules could be needed. Either way, yesterday's announcement is a diplomatic gesture and everything depends now on how this will be fleshed out. In the most negative scenario, the stakeholders would fail to agree on the terms of "formal recognition" of the trade unions. In the most optimistic one, there would be a new tone and a sense of partnership, which could lead to significant improvement.
Originally, president Battistelli declared himself unwilling to comply with a Dutch court order after the Dutch government ensured the ruling would not be enforced. The appeals court in The Hague had told the EPO to comply with certain rules that are fundamental human rights of employees of any organization in the civilized world. Enforceable or not, that decision has apparently shown to some of the governments of EPOrg member states that something needed to be done. The announcement of a plan to work toward formal recognition of trade unions suggests that the EPO(rg) at least doesn't want to overtly violate workers' rights and hide behind diplomatic immunity, which is always a last resort. So they say they're going to do something that happened in major EPOrg member states like the UK and Germany almost 150 years ago: to formally recognize trade unions. (Granted, EPO employees have always had the right to strike, so the current rules aren't medieval in all respects, but with recent changes that would require a strike to be approved by the president, the right to strike had also been effectively vitiated.)
That said, progress is progress. Better late than never.
There are still some important questions that need an answer. Judicial independence. Checks and balances. Conflicts of interest of AC members. Patent quality. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and staff input can (we'll see whether it actually will) help to arrive at better decisions in all those areas.
[Update] SUEPO has meanwhile reacted with an announcement of another demonstration (details will be communicated next month) and has expressed what I interpret as skepticism regarding the sincerity of the "social dialog" initative:
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