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European Patent Office heads rapidly toward full meltdown

President refuses to accept censure from oversight council

The European Patent Office (EPO) is heading toward a full meltdown, with its president reportedly refusing to accept an official censure over his recent actions.

A leaked version of a letter from the board of the EPO's Administrative Council (B28) highlights the depths to which the organization's relationship with its executive has fallen.

"At its meetings of 2 and 17 February, B28 concentrated on the issue of the social unrest within the EPO," the letter starts, referring to the repeated strikes at the patent office due to actions taken by president Benoît Battistelli – in particular disciplinary proceedings against union representatives who have resisted his modernization efforts.

The EPO examines and grants patent applications that are then applicable across Europe.

The board also references a meeting between it, the president and his staff on 10 February that hoped "to explore the possibility of cooperation between the president and the council." Apparently, that meeting went badly.

"Unfortunately, we have not been able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the president," the note, obtained by patent blog Techrights, says. "We therefore saw it as unavoidable to translate the serious concerns of the council members into a formal request to be addressed to the president."

That subsequent "request" asked Battistelli to agree to an external review of the actions taken against union leaders and to have the proceedings stopped until the review was finished. Battistelli's response, according to the letter, was to reject it entirely and question whether the board had the legal right to make the request in the first place.

Escalation

The board now intends to take the matter up with the full administrative council that oversees the EPO at its meeting in March and turn its request into a formal document to be presented to Battistelli. "We made clear that these disciplinary cases had triggered very serious concerns at the political level about the proper functioning of the organisation," the board noted.

While these bureaucratic maneuverings may seem innocuous, they represent an unprecedented level of anger directed at Battistelli and his team, and threaten to turn what has been an effort to bring the EPO into the 21st century into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

Battistelli started in 2010 and his term ends in 2018. Soon after he arrived at the patent office, he embarked on a campaign to modernize the organization by getting rid of outdated work practices like fixed wage rises and promotions tied to seniority rather than performance. He also introduced telecommuting.

Those efforts naturally enough pitched him against the EPO's work union, but thanks to his team's uncompromising – critics say autocratic – approach, the conflict began to escalate. Battistelli's management found itself the target of personal and anonymous attacks, as well as occasional leaks of confidential information, such as an embarrassing sweetheart deal with Microsoft to fast-track its patent applications.

In response, the Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO) complained about intimidation of its representatives through internal probes involving hidden cameras, computer key-loggers and a special "investigative unit."

When staff threatened to strike, Battistelli restricted their rights to do so, further inflaming the situation and leading to actual strikes that then drew media attention to the problems.

Exit strategy

As the organization's figurehead, Battistelli has become the focus of sustained attacks, and while his team has worked hard to push a calm public image, frequent outbursts against his union have exacerbated the problem. As a result, the disciplinary proceedings against union leaders have become a lightning rod for broader concerns.

The EPO, which Battistelli runs, is the executive body for the European Patent Organisation (EPOrg), and the aforementioned administrative council acts as its supervisory body. As such, the council has the power to force the EPO to act and, if necessary, to fire the president.

In reality, the organization is so bureaucratic and political that the executive body has significant latitude in its actions and the president has enormous power over the organization's functioning.

With the board producing such a strongly worded letter and sending it to the full council, however, it is increasingly unlikely that Battistelli will serve his full term.

Rumors have been rife for weeks that he was due to resign or was negotiating a pay-off. This letter is likely to move those rumors closer to reality.

We asked the EPO to confirm the letter and its contents and offered them an opportunity to respond. We have yet to receive a response. ®

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