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04.10.15

New Article Chronicles Suicides and Nervous Breakdowns at the EPO Due to the Management’s Abuses

Posted in Europe, Patents at 4:20 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Le Monde

Summary: Article from Le Monde translated into English

THE French article which was mentioned the other day is attempting to be balanced by speaking to the Frenchman Battistelli and French proponents of software patents, UPC etc. (Michel Barnier for example). While we can find some factual errors and glaring omissions in the article or the way certain things are framed, it does introduce some interesting observations, some of which are new.

Someone has provided us with an English translation of the article and we can now present it in full (translation making it fair use):


A ‘so good’ office

The European Patent Office (EPO) looks like a happy world, which like any happiness, is appreciated but until now was hidden. Who knows this international organisation? For nearly forty years it has recorded the patents filed by businesses in Europe and it employs 7,000 people, mostly based in the headquarters in Munich, Germany, and at Ryswick, a suburb of The Hague in
the Netherlands. Many employees of all nationalities, quietly being pampered, are receiving higher wages and more benefits than even the unionists of this modern Babel and feel favorable.

Yet behind its peaceful facade, another reality is now described from the inside. Poisoned atmosphere, staff at the edge of a nervous breakdown, monitored, marked, pressurised, subjected to productivity goals which are always higher. Recalcitrants are summoned by the security officers to take their goods in the hour and are accompanied under escort to the exit. And some come to extreme gestures. A 55-year-old man was tied up by some colleagues because he was banging his head against a wall. Another one was scarifying himself.

More dramatic late March, a German committed suicide in a public garden in the Bavarian capital. He was on sick leave for depression and had spoken with friends about his apprehension as to achieve productivity goals. July 8, 2013, a Belgian officer threw himself out of the window of his office in The Hague. Two other employees, one French and one German, committed suicide at their Munich home. Before ending his days in May 2012, the French had requested a transfer, because he felt harassed by his superior. The German, who had criticised the attitude of the management in managing the distress of this colleague was immediately suspended and expelled from the premises. He committed suicide Sept. 3, 2014, the day he received a convocation from the Disciplinary Committee.

In this context of extreme tension, slings and arrows started. The daily life of the Office is punctuated by strikes (22 days in 2014) and demonstrations. “Social relationships are very bad,” said one employee who, like all the others, requested anonymity. The main union of the house, SUEPO (an acronym which stands for Staff Union of the European Patent Office), to which almost half of employees are members, accuses Benoît Battistelli, the president appointed in 2010 and renewed in 2014. The French would abuse a principle inscribed since the beginning in the statutes of Office: legal immunity.

“Authoritarian drift”

The EPO was born in 1977 from an agreement signed by the States of the European Community, has been extended to the Union of Twenty-Eight and afterwards to other countries, from Switzerland to the Balkans, to count today [as many as] 38 members. Like most international organisations, the EPO has a status of extraterritoriality. It has its own rules on taxation, social security,
pension or labor law. It does not depend on national justice. The only legal recourse is the Arbitral Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “This immunity is a fundamental condition of functioning and independence, explains Benoît Battistelli. We are present in five countries and are counting many nationalities among our employees. What law should apply to them?”

Until then, the organisation knew how to cuddle highly qualified staff, mostly made up of PhDs and engineers from leading schools. Brain boxes [were] able to examine in German, English, French, the three official languages, and patent applications filed by the laboratories of Siemens, Philips, Samsung and others. Aces were able to detect flaws or “borrowings” from competitors in technical documents that can reach 200 pages. Starting Salary: 5000 euros per month, taxable at 6%, plus expatriation bonuses. The salaries can reach 15,000 euros in late career for 40 hours per week and three months of vacation. The Office pays the medical expenses and education of children, including enrolment fees in the best American universities.

The EPO has a considerable operating budget, 2 billion euros, up 20% in five years, making it the largest European organisation, just after the Brussels Commission. Companies around the world come to register their inventions: 274,000 applications in 2014, again rising steadily. The Office finances itself with the examination fee and the annual fees paid by the patents’ applicants.

Listening to SUEPO, this economic and legal independence has yet been perverted by the arrival of Benoît Battistelli, a technocrat of 64 years formed at the french “École nationale d’administration”. The new boss would succumb to an “authoritarian drift” and to “dictatorial tactics”. It would be surrounded by an inner circle at his sole devotion, formed almost entirely of French individuals coming like him from the National Intellectual Property Institute (INPI). Benoît Battistelli would have transformed the tenth floor of the Munich headquarters, by means of a stylish and expensive renovation, in a fortress from which he rules the institution.

To denounce the colleagues

Still, according to its detractors, the management uses and abuses an “investigation unit” which, for each site, is responsible for investigating breaches. In the German headquarters, this internal police has been called… the Stasi. A document gives obligation to the employees to collaborate with this investigation unit and to denounce the faults of others, under penalty of sanctions. “There were more disciplinary procedures in the past two years than in the previous thirty years,” complained a staff representative.

The counterweights for the presidency, provided by the statutes, were gradually eliminated, continues SUEPO. The union was expelled from the EPO premises in November 2014. “We had eight days to pack up”. The right to strike was limited: it is subject to a complex procedure and the president may oppose to it by requisition. Several staff representatives, unprotected, are under penalty of sanctions for having supported colleagues.

“We are aware that our salaries are more than decent. But from which income level the human rights do not apply anymore?” asks a Munich employee.

Recently, a judge of the Board of appeal – which handles appeals of rejected patent – was suspended and forcibly thrown out. He is suspected of having slandered anonymously a member of management, the Croat Zeljko Topic, referring to corruption cases that would affect him in his country. But the judge is in principle independent. His colleagues protested collectively to the President against what they consider an abuse of power.

“Fantasies”

“A wall of silence reigns now in this organization,” agrees Philip Cordery, socialist member of parliament of French abroad. “People who are working at the EPO inform me regularly of their malaise. There is a clear abuse of the extraterritorial status which does not mean impunity”.

Lengthily, methodically, Benoît Battistelli refutes attacks on him. He even agreed to entrust Le Monde his contract and discloses his salary, “around 250,000 euros per year.” He denounced the “fantasies” for caricaturing the Office into a Banana Republic. “The EPO is the victim of a two years campaign to undermine the integrity and honesty of its leaders.” He and
his entourage received anonymous letters, sometimes accompanied by swastikas. He declares himself as a victim of a cabal just because he wanted to clarify the roles of everybody, to introduce formal rules, when the organization used to be a de facto joint management. He denounced “racist attacks” against his Croatian deputy. To use suicides against him would fall under bad procedure: “I am deeply shocked by attempts to exploit these tragedies. This subject is too serious for lending itself to controversy”. He ensures that “the investigation unit acts independently”.

The President has the support of the Administrative Council, comprised of representatives from 38 states. He was reappointed unanimously in 2014. Benoît Battistelli was mandated to make the institution more productive and more competitive against the competition of other offices worldwide. EPO procedures are three times more expensive than its US counterpart, even though, because of the precision of the work, the patents it grants are twenty times less often attacked in the courts. “We have to adapt our way of working, our regulatory framework to allow the agency to ensure its future,” he says. And that future is called “Unitary European patent”, a simplified procedure whose objective is “to make innovation cheaper and easier for companies,” said Michel Barnier, former European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. “We want to make these savings at the expense of staff of the office,” retorted a trade unionist.

SUEPO multiplied complaints before national courts. “But we meet with the principle of immunity,” says Amélie Lefebvre, which represents the union in France. The Hague Court of Appeal has however driven a wedge in a judgment delivered on 17 February. The judges ruled that the immunity was “disproportionate” and did not guarantee “the protection of fundamental rights”. They even estimated their decision applicable elsewhere in Europe.

The Government of the Netherlands, fearing that this decision makes ]changes to] some other similar organisations on its territory, immediately condemned this decision and refused to run it. The case takes a politic turn. Philip Cordery sent letters to the European Commission or to the Directorate General of the ILO, relaying concerns of the staff. Member of parliament Pierre-Yves Le BORGN’ and Senator Jean-Yves Leconte, other socialist representatives of French abroad, called out successive ministers of economy, to no avail so far. Elsewhere, some parliamentarians of Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland and Cyprus have launched similar initiatives.

At the last board of the EPO, on 25 and 26 of March, discordant voices were heard and a Communiqué called for a “resumption of social dialogue”. Not sure that this attempt at conciliation will be enough to appease encysted hatreds. The violence of the mail exchanges between the president and SUEPO proves that between these two there is a death struggle.


Any corrections to this translation should be reported to us to ensure accuracy.

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