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Patent officers crack under pressure

May 5, 2006 By Alison Abbott This article courtesy of Nature News.

European workers strike against system to boost efficiency.

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Patent examiners don't exactly have a reputation for staging angry protests. But on Tuesday 9 May they plan to hold a half-day strike at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, Germany, to defend their right to work to a high quality.

They say that management, under pressure from the exploding number of European patent applications, is forcing them to process more and more files each year. The number of patent applications coming in to the office has increased by nearly 50% over the last decade, while the office's productivity has risen by 30%.

Now the EPO is planning to introduce a new system of assessing their work, which the examiners claim will force them to get through even more files, and push them beyond the point at which they can guarantee consistently good work. Quality will be sacrificed for quantity if the system is introduced, says Elizabeth Hardon, chair of the EPO staff union.

This matters, she says, because the number of challenges over the validity of granted patents could easily increase.

A patent has to be examined carefully to ensure that it meets all the criteria for patentability: novelty, inventiveness and industrial applicability. Patent applications have become increasingly complex, so high-quality examination takes time. If an application seems to be borderline patentable, it is quicker for officers to grant it rather than to accumulate the necessary evidence that may justify rejection.

Quality or quantity?

The new system, which management plans to introduce next year, is more complex than the current one. Rather than simply accumulating 'points' for each file completed, examiners will be graded against objectives, agreed with their line-manager, that take into account more aspects of the examining process.

Management says this will be a fairer system. EPO spokesman Rainer Osterwalder agrees that management expects the system to increase productivity, which he says is a "major issue" given the EPO's backlog of applications. But he insists that quality will be improved along with greater efficiency.

The union, however, disagrees. "We don't see it that way," says Hardon. She says the new approach is "focussed on productivity and has not resolved any of the shortcomings of the current system". It was given the thumbs-down in two staff surveys last year: one conducted by management and one by the union.

Hardon says that granting too many marginal patents would make the explosion in number of applications worse, as more would-be applicants would be encouraged to try their luck. "We examiners should be allowed plenty of time to handle speculative patent applications so as not to encourage the over-speculative," she says.

Patent examiners voted nearly unanimously for Tuesday's warning strike, and further actions may be planned.

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