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Fallout from Euro Patent Office meltdown reaches Dutch parliament

King Battistelli, of course, remains unrepentant

The extraordinary meltdown at the European Patent Office (EPO) has started to draw political attention, with the Dutch parliament planning a debate on the organization and its ongoing problems.

Socialist member of the Netherlands Parliament, MP Sharon Gesthuizen, received strong backing to her request for the debate following the dismissal of a key EPO staff member earlier this month by EPO president Benoit Battistelli, and a majority of MPs have now supported the motion.

As a result, the Dutch government is expected to draw up a formal response about the EPO and its view on recent events.

The debate is an escalation of a long-running battle at the patent office that has seen Battistelli suspend several prominent members of its staff union, as well as a member of the Boards of Appeal, for blocking his reform efforts and for criticizing his heavy-handed efforts to force them through.

The EPO's main satellite office in The Hague was also the scene of a recent protest where over 300 EPO staff gathered to protest Battistelli's behavior. Dutch MP John Kerstens attended that rally and gave a speech in which he criticized the "reign of terror" at the EPO.

In addition to the Dutch politicians focusing in on the EPO, the organization appears to be losing favor with the intellectual property trade press. After the firing of staff union secretary Laurent Prunier this month, the editor of Intellectual Asset Magazine (IAM), Joff Wild, wrote a damning article urging the EPO's Administrative Council to "get a grip of this situation."

Wild noted that IAM had consciously avoided taking sides in the dispute between management and staff, but that the firing of Prunier – against the explicit recommendation of the Administrative Council – had caused a re-evaluation. "I have always given the EPO's senior management the benefit of the doubt, but increasingly it looks like I may have been wrong to do so," Wild wrote.

Crisis PR

In recent months, EPO management has gone to some considerable lengths to repaint internal conflict as an issue that is being resolved, with its crisis management team not only commissioning a study to look into the matter but even running a one-day conference to discuss the findings.

Such efforts have been roundly mocked and criticized by critics of the EPO as a whitewash, but the fact that IAM also saw such efforts as a sign that something really was wrong at the EPO sparked a response from Battistelli himself.

"Dear Joff, I have always appreciated your interest in EPO matters and respect your freedom of opinion, but you made a number of assertions in your blog, which fail to take into account some basic points," the EPO president wrote in a letter, published online.

Battistelli then used an all-too-familiar series of arguments and denials to excuse any personal responsibility for the crisis engulfing the organization – a situation that has resulted in him receiving a zero per cent staff confidence vote.

"The issue at stake has nothing to do with a difficult relationship between the management and a trade union as a whole," Battistelli argued. "The sad truth is that a few individuals, taking advantage of their protected status and the image that trade unions enjoy among the public, have repeatedly crossed lines over the years to the extent that the EPO management has no longer been able to stay blind and cross its arms anymore."

Battistelli then repeated claims that EPO staff had threatened and intimidated others, leaving management with no choice but to act. The controversial investigations unit he set up was designed to protect staff "against the attacks from their colleagues," he argued, and much of the information gathered was supplied by the staff themselves, he claimed.

Battistelli then claims all the disciplinary proceedings held so far have been fair and paints himself as an independent adjudicator of reports, acting solely on recommendations from others. He denies the investigations were "targeted actions" and "strongly refute[s] any accusations of 'management by intimidation'."

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