A row has broken out at the European Patent Office over the quality of its work.
The international organization's big annual meeting in Munich this week has been overshadowed by a war of words between staff and the EPO's president, Benoit Battistelli. Staff are warning that quality is falling in response to an aggressive effort by management to increase output and Battistelli is publicly disparaging his own staff in response.
In response to pointed criticism, Battistelli highlighted his team's first ever annual quality report that showed very high levels of satisfaction as evidence that all was well at the organization. But at least one government subsequently picked apart that report by noting that it relies entirely on internal evaluations.
The row kicked off when the EPO's staff representative dropped its typically diplomatic update to the EPO's Administrative Council – made up of 38 European government representatives – and provided a caustic criticism of reforms efforts at the EPO, arguing that a push for ever-faster and greater numbers of patent approvals was leading to a drop in quality.
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Battistelli was identified as the prime driver of problems and was directly associated both with low levels of morale at the EPO and, shockingly, with a number of recent suicides at the organization.
But it is the attack on quality that has stirred up the most anger. Citing the EPO's own quality report, the staff representative told the council: "The quality report does not analyze whether the search reports are complete and the patents granted meet the requirements of the EPC [European Patent Convention]."
Open and shut case
They also noted that the figures cited in the report are from the EPO's own CASE quality control system, which has frequently been criticized as providing inflated results. Talking of the CASE system, the staff rep noted: "The patent examiners themselves must register whether their own work is in order. You can imagine what is being introduced here for fear of sanctions."
The rep argued that unless the system was improved, it could cause companies to register their patents with other global patent bodies instead: "When large applicants are turning away from the European Patent Office, it is too late. The interest of the Personnel Committee is to draw your attention to problems in good time."
They noted that the number of searches and patents granted has gone up while at the same time the time spent on each had gone down. "Is this really what we want for quality?" the rep asked, noting that the staff was "ready to contribute constructively to a reasonable quality assurance mechanism and to address the existing problems."
Battistelli was, predictably, furious. He has waged a long reform battle at the EPO that has seen the organization repeatedly pulled in front of the International Labor Organization, the courts and even the European Court of Human Rights. He has, however, retained the support of the majority of the Administrative Council by arguing that he is modernizing the EPO and – critically – that the number of patents is increasing while quality has been maintained or even improved.
Any suggestion that the reforms efforts are reducing the quality of patents would risk undermining that entire organization since it raises the likelihood that approved patents are then challenged and even defeated in court: every business' worst nightmare.