Tuesday, March 24, 2015

This week's EPO Administrative Council meeting: revolution unlikely, progress badly needed

The Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation, which operates the European Patent Office, still has to decide what to do about the (de facto) suspension of an internal judge (a member of a board of appeal, to be precise), an incident that has raised concerns from various sides, including high-profile judges and professional organizations. This is not the only rule-of-law issue the EPO(rg) faces: a ruling by a Dutch appeals court, even though it won't be enforced (at least for now), found the EPO's leadership in conflict with some fundamental human rights. This, in turn, has ever more politicians concerned.

Tomorrow and the day after (Wednesday and Thursday), the Administrative Council (basically the "shareholder assembly") of the EPO will meet. The IPKat blog (or at least one of its authors) has written an open letter to AC members, and I agree with its substance.

The AC will do all that it can to create the appearance of "business as usual," as it tried in December. It will focus on technicalities, which often come in handy as a smokescreen. I doubt that the EPO's president, BenoƮt Battistelli, will lose any sleep these days over fears he might be ousted. Still, progress is needed (badly, in fact) and there is at least hope (as I also sense in the IP community) that there could be at least some positive development.

A serious shake-up, which is probably inevitable in the mid to long term, would require different political dynamics. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas unless they are forced to. The national government delegates on the AC have reasons for backing Mr. Battistelli's controversial decisions and plans. The EPO is, indirectly, a cash cow for national patent offices (through renewal fees). Germany alone receives about 140 million euros per year in annual renewal fees for the German parts of patents granted by the EPO. National patent offices are given lucrative opportunities in the form of cooperation projects with the EPO, which the president controls. And AC members have frequently been (and some current AC members are rumored to be) given high-level posts at the EPO, where they usually get a much bigger paycheck than at home. More than enough reasons to favor stability over everything else.

So what can get those turkeys to vote for Christmas? Their bosses--the national ministers in charge--would have to order them to vote in certain ways, or there would have to be dynamics that threaten to have that effect (and possibly even worse effects for those who failed to exercise sufficient and responsible oversight). Unfortunately, the ministers have many things on their plate and they, too, want the EPO revenue stream (though they're unlikely to be interested in a VP post at the Office for themselves). But to a far greater extent than the public servants, the ministers will want to avoid bad publicity and critical parliamentary questions.

These past few months have apparently been the worst period in the EPO's history as far as bad publicity and critical parliamentary questions are concerned, apart from occasional debates over patents "on life." The news section of the EPO staff union's website contains links to various articles and official questions asked by members of the European Parliament (such as this document) as well as national parliaments.

For some more aggressive criticism, I recommend this website, which contains fliers written by anonymous EPO employees (thus not affiliated with SUEPO, the EPO staff union).

SUEPO will hold a demonstration tomorrow in Munich in order to draw additional attention to the issues (this post continues below the document):

15 03 23 SUEPO Flier by Florian Mueller

In a recent interview, Mr. Battistelli described the combination of the approach of French unions with German efficiency as a "dangerous cocktail." It's an interesting way to look at this, but those nationalities are found in many other international organizations (European Union, Council of Europe, NATO, and so many others), yet the EPO's labor dispute appears unique. I attribute this in no small part to the fact that some of the other large organizations actually have subscribed to human rights charters. If the European Patent Organisation joined the Council of Europe, as a SUEPO activist demanded at a demonstration I watched last year, EPO employees could take certain matters to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Under the current circumstances, when a court like the one in the Netherlands confirms that even EPO employees have certain human rights, the EPO can use diplomatic immunity as a shield.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this week's council meeting. Also, I plan to talk about the EPO's fees (the current ones as well as the proposed ones for the single European patent) soon in light of industry concern.

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