The European Patent Office (EPO) was hit last week by a strike by staff who were demanding not better pay and conditions but the freedom to help create better quality patents.
Around 250 staff took part in the strike and a march through Brussels demanding better governance of the EPO, according to the EPO staff union, SUEPO. A delegation met with officials from European Internal Markets Commissioner Charlie McCreevy's office the next day to outline their concerns.
The protesters claim that the EPO is forcing them to grant patents that are not of good enough quality so that the EPO can receive patent registration fees from them. They claim the result is a potentially disastrous lowering of patent quality.
The staff objections mirror those from opponents of the patent system in Europe and the US and opponents to any extension of patents to cover software. A common argument from those opponents is that examiners are not strict enough in policing patent quality.
EPO staff have argued that national patent offices, whose directors sit on the governing body of the EPO and which share 50 per cent of EPO revenues, are pressurising the organisation into generating patent revenues where no patents should be awarded.
"A conflict of interest has therefore existed since the founding of the EPO … the eagerness of the national patent offices to get more money out of the EPO has led the EPO management to squeeze more and more patent grants from the staff," said Sylvie Jacobs of the Union Syndicale Federale, to which SUEPO is affiliated at the Brussels march. "In the EPO, it ruins the professional pride of the examiners and other EPO staff who thus find it more and more difficult to meet the quality level imposed by patent law and expected by industry and the public."
Jacobs said that the consequences of the problems are severe.
"Lowering quality standards while increasing the EPO’s output, or sharing core tasks with less qualified national patent offices, have … disastrous effects," she said. "In a situation where many of the granted intellectual property monopoly rights worldwide would be unjustified, and the scope of those monopolies would be blurred, large companies would end up in dominant positions on markets through the sheer number of intellectual property rights and their economic power."
"These rights can easily be misused to put smaller entities under pressure and stifle rather than promote innovation. We have been warned by the evolution of the American patent system that has provoked much headache and dispute on the other side of the Atlantic. Ultimately, the European consumer will pay the bill for such a distortion of competition," she said.
Last week's action was not the first time that staff had expressed their opposition to the way the EPO is managed. They staged a demonstration and a strike last year over similar issues, and in 2006 held protests demanding enough time to make sure that patents were of a high enough quality.
The staff complaints were addressed to EPO president Alison Brimelow and its council president Roland Grossenbacher.
"Ms Brimelow, Mr Grossenbacher: stop decentralising EPO tasks, stop ruining the quality of granted patents, stop distorting the system away from the interests of real innovators towards the interests of the most aggressive international players and perhaps a few Anglophone patent attorneys, stop opposing the Lisbon agenda, stop frustrating the EPO staff," said Jacobs. "Become aware of your real task: serve the European consumers, universities, SMEs and all real innovators, gear the EPO to the EU, support and facilitate the introduction of the community patent, allow your staff to proudly serve Europe and its citizens."
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