Euro Patent Office reforms hit another stumbling block: Reality

King Battistelli's crusade starts charging down the wrong hill


Quality street

At the same time that the EPO management has relentlessly pushed to speed up processes, it has had maintained a second keen focus on quality, knowing full well that the entire Battistelli experiment could fall apart if the quality of patent examination is seen to suffer.

Ominously, however, as soon as the reforms started taking effect EPO management introduced a new approach to quality measurement that removed many of its independent aspects and put them under the control of the president and his team. In addition, an effort to speed up the process, combined with an aggressive clampdown on staff by management, has undermined the process for critical evaluation of patents.

Previously, the three-person team working on a given patent case would work together and then the chair in each case would do a quick quality check at the end of that process to confirm all was fine.

Under the new system, the chair is expected to weigh in earlier and lodge any concerns in the EPO's Conformity Assurance for Search and Examination (CASE) system before talking to the first evaluator. The subsequent conversation on those points is then also lodged in the system.

The end result of this change is any errors that were previously caught at the earliest stages become a part of the record: so either the first examiner is seen to have made a mistake or the chair is seen to have falsely flagged a problem.

The end result of that, according to internal figures that The Register has seen is that there is less critically analysis being applied to applications rather than more as examiners worry about EPO management blaming them for, ironically, bringing down quality metrics.

Prior to the change, there was a 85-88 per cent conformity rate i.e. agreement between examiners; after the change, a stunning 99 per cent conformity. Battistelli's team, convinced that their pressure tactics are simply causing people to work harder and better, view the results as validating their approach when in reality it undermines it.

But just as the EPO is increasingly unable to keep a lid on the impact of its "early certainty" program, so the knock-on impact on EPO report quality is starting to overwhelm the management's efforts to contain it.

At the last meeting of the EPO's Administrative Council, when the management team outlined their unlikely double-whammy of more patent application approvals while quality also rose, staff union representatives gently suggested that the figures were not showing the full picture.

Blinkers

The next day, two of the EPO's vice presidents, Guillaume Minnoye and Alberto Casado Cerviño sending a scathing note to all staff claiming that their union reps had bad-mouthed their efforts in front of the council.

In it they claimed the staff representatives had "publicly attacked ... the quality of the products delivered by EPO staff, without any evidence but unfounded allegations," as well as shown "a total lack of respect for the colleagues who have shown by their efforts and professionalism the capacity of the Office to improve the quality of the products and services of the Office."

And just this week, in another even more extraordinary email to all staff, the management team embarrassed themselves by distorting statistics that EPO quality in a bad light to claim the opposite result. Employees at a patent office tend to have a significantly better grasp of mathematics than the general population.

The staff representatives had highlighted a recent survey by German legal journal Juve that found 54 per cent of companies that responded said they were unhappy with the quality of recent EPO reports.

Rather than acknowledge that as a serious problem or offer to contact Juve to dig into the issue, EPO management instead gave their staff a terrifying insight into how things work under King Battistelli.

Noting that Juve said it has surveyed the patent departments of 168 international technology companies, EPO management pointed to the fact that only 24 of them had completely answered the survey – and then embarked on a statistical contortion to arrive at a completely different figure.

24 companies from a sample of 168 means 14.28 per cent, and then 54 per cent of 24 means 13 companies or 7.73 per cent of the total… which is in fact close to the result of the EPO regular user survey published on our website (4 per cent of the respondents were not satisfied with the quality of EPO search and examination in 2006). So much ado about nothing.

From 54 per cent unhappiness to 7.7 per cent by, um, deciding that everyone that didn't answer failed to do so because they were 100 per cent happy with the EPO.

And that is what happens when you create a culture that refuses to hear criticism, where information is willfully distorted to give the desired result, and the ends justify the means. Whoever takes over from King Battistelli in 2018 will have their work cut out for them. ®

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