Who are patent officers

Patent assessments, working conditions, trade union rights: European patent officials at odds with their boss

Anyone who works at the European Patent Office shouldn't have any reason to be dissatisfied at first glance: The starting salary for patent examiners is 5200 euros gross, the maximum is almost 12,000. And the payment can also be seen deeper in the hierarchy. There are 30 days of paid leave per year, the regular retirement age is 65, married couples and parents receive allowances; and employees pay just three percent of their basic income for the health insurance companies.

Despite these apparently exemplary conditions, there are always work stoppages. Employee representatives were dismissed, parliamentarians from the Netherlands, France and Germany inquired about the working atmosphere and the Administrative Council called on EPO President BenoƮt Battistelli to work better with the trade unions.

Union leaders were fired

However, in the eyes of the largest employee representation, SUEPO (Staff Union of the European Patent Office), he is hardly an option anymore. After years of fighting, Battistelli dismissed two leading Munich SUEPO representatives and a trade unionist from the EPO branch in The Hague in 2016. Reason in all three cases: "harassment", which can mean "bullying", "harassment" or "harassment".

However, EPO employees are not open to legal recourse, which is relatively uncomplicated and quick to clarify such allegations for employees of German authorities and companies. Because the office is an intergovernmental body that is not subject to any national (labor) law. Anyone who is dismissed or has other grounds for complaint can only contact the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva. In October 2015, she complained about the disproportionate burden of EPO cases: In 37 years, 761 decisions had to be made in this context - the WHO, with a similar number of employees, had only come to 447 cases in 66 years. Proceedings before the ILO can take up to ten years.

The arguments between Battistelli and the employees involved, among other things, what he believed to be too high a sick leave. The EPO President therefore decreed that sick employees had to be ready for unannounced checks by doctors between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. and between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Strikes should only take place after his approval. He also changed the rules for pay and absence due to illness: employees can only be absent for a total of three days per year without a medical certificate.

More patents, worse patents?

In addition to these points of contention, which directly affect the employment relationship, there are different views between the staff and Battistelli about the "improvement in productivity" he is promoting in the EPO. They first became visible in 2011. At that time, the President suggested paying the employees a bonus of 4,000 euros net from the surplus of the office. The employee representatives spoke out against this: Such a bonus signals that the main goal is to approve a large number of patents and consequently generate high fees. However, it must be a matter of carefully examining the applications and maintaining the high standards of the EPO in the granting of patents.

However, it is not clear whether the European Patent Office is really particularly thorough when it comes to granting patents. An investigation into the patent revocation proceedings before the German Federal Patent Court (BPatG) found that the court revoked almost 80 percent of the defendant property rights in whole or in part. There was no significant difference between patents granted by the German and the European Patent Office. All 392 decisions of the Federal Patent Court between 2010 and 2013 were examined. During this period, the EPO granted around 60,000 patents annually. The proportion of those challenged in court is therefore less than 0.2 percent.

However, before the process can start, the EPO itself can revoke a patent. It did this in around 31 percent of the cases applied for in 2015. The US Patent Office declared over 70 percent of the disputed patents null and void during the same period. This comparison could actually indicate a higher quality of European patents.

However, examiners and patent attorneys are skeptical about the "productivity increase" operated by Battistelli, which should have been around 14 percent in 2015. According to the British blog IPKat, the figures indicate that the office has shifted to "cherry-picking": simple cases are processed more quickly, so that difficult cases are left lying around longer. According to the EPO's own data, despite the higher productivity, the time until a patent is granted has increased by two months in 2015 compared to the previous year. Auditors criticize that the required higher output must inevitably come at the expense of quality.

Battistelli suspends judges

The EPO boss is not only at odds with employees, but also with the Board of Appeal. According to the European Patent Convention, it is independent of the President and national governments and is responsible for opposing the grant or non-grant of a patent. At the end of December 2014, Battistelli suspended a member of the appeal chamber with a disputed legal basis.

The EPO President only claims to have been "banned from entering", but de facto the person concerned was no longer able to work. Due to the legal situation, it is still unclear what he was accused of. It is known, however, that the EPO's data protection officer had allowed the internal "investigation unit" to install keyloggers on two of the Office's publicly accessible computers. The aim was supposedly to identify the author of "defamatory statements". The Board of Directors is solely responsible for suspending members of the appeal chambers. Battistelli hadn't asked him before he was "banned from entering". This led to resentment, but not to consequences: the Board of Directors subsequently approved the suspension.