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European in-house counsel express mixed feelings on EPO four-year plan

Lawyers at Gedeon Richter, F-Star and Siemens say they are happy to see a focus on employee satisfaction in the 2023 Strategic Plan, but would also like to see a higher emphasis on quality

Last month, the EPO released its 2023 Strategic Plan that set out its main areas of focus; including building an engaged organisation, modernising IT systems, and delivering high-quality products efficiently.

European in-house sources from the manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and telecoms industries say they are mostly pleased with the goals set out by the four-year plan, but agree there is always room for improvement.
One of the first areas they are happy to see given proper attention to is staff engagement.
“The most valuable asset of the IP office is its staff,” says Imre Gonda, head of the IP department at Gideon Richter in Hungary. “This is given proper priority in the plan because staff engagement is the first pillar mentioned.”
The issue of staff engagement is given particular emphasis in view of the strikes that occurred during the previous administration. According to the plan, Antonio Campinos has conducted more than 1,000 interviews with staff members since taking office to solicit their feedback on job satisfaction and places for improvement.
“What should also be tackled is the diversity question,” says Gonda. “New member states joined the European Patent Convention a long time ago and the geographical balance among the staff from these different new member states is not provided for.”
Quality of patents issued as well as increasing the granting rate per examiner were also concerns cited by in-house sources. The EPO has the lowest granting rate of the IP5, according to one source, which includes the five largest patent offices; the EPO, CNIPA, KIPO, USPTO, and JPO.
Although the rate is low, there is concern that the rate of the examination is closely tied to the quality of the patent. However, not everyone agrees that quality must fall to allow for speed.
“I do not agree with this view that raising the targets for examiners will automatically result in degrading the quality of patents. There are so many different issues here,” says Gonda. “It is very difficult to compare performance of IP offices, but one of the main reasons the IP5 exists is to share experiences. A proper balance of quality and granting rate should be found.”
Winfried Sabisch, IP counsel at Siemens in Germany, says agreeing on a common definition of what makes a quality patent is a good place to start the discussion of reform.
“Quality issues are important for us. What would be good is to have a common sense idea of quality. It appears the EPO has a different definition from what users might have. It would be very beneficial if we all came together and had the same working definition of what quality means,” he says.
He says his main concern is to have patents that are well examined, and that that time is takes to receive the patent is only one parameter of quality. “You should have a bulletproof patent and not one that will have an issue with litigation.”
Gonda concurs, noting that what industries need are patents that can survive litigation. A better definition of what makes a high quality patent is one that can hold up in court.
“Quality is the area where we expect a lot and there is a lot of work here needed to be done. Perhaps the approach of the EPO should be changed, they claim they have the best quality but this is a very vague sentence,” he adds
Alison McGhee, vice-president of IP at F-Star Biotechnology in the UK, tells Patent Strategy that she has an good overall impression of the four-year plan: “The plan all sounds very positive and they seem to be focusing on improving the staff environment as well as their IT infrastructure, both of which needed attention.”
Having common IP tools that can be shared between the EPO and national offices was one initiative appreciated by in-house sources. “The standardisation of IP tools is an excellent initiative but it remains a little unclear how the EPO will tackle cutting edge technologies like big data and AI,” says Gonda.
McGhee notes that she would like to see the EPO become more user friendly and focus more on the needs of industries and less on that of law firms.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot in the strategic plan about how they are going to improve their interface with clients. For example are they going to improve IT and building infrastructure for oral proceedings and examiner reviews? Some improvements have been made but this still needs a lot of work,” she says.
As more patents are filed from across the globe and the pace of technology increases, the EPO will be confronted with increasing workloads and demands. Progress has been made but there is always room for improvement. 

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