EPO Internal Strife Spills Over Into European Parliament, Human Rights Court

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Relations between European Patent Office (EPO) staff and senior officials, already tense due to work issues with President Benoît Battistelli, have been further undermined by the continuing presence of Vice-President Željko Topić, according to a source close to the situation. Claims about Topić’s suitability for office by one of his former employees at the Croatian State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) have now reached the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), while a petition by the Association for the Advancement of the Rule of Law (Juris Protecta) in Croatia has been filed in the European Parliament. 

Intellectual Property Watch spoke to the various parties involved in the matter to try to gain a better understanding of the issue.

While it’s unclear whether either of these efforts will succeed, Topić’s suitability for office “is a fairly contentious issue” inside the EPO, the source said. Given the various accusations, and apparently uncontested press reports, the general feeling among EPO staff is that there are unanswered questions about Topić’s appointment,” the source said. Employees are also dissatisfied about what they see as an inadequate official response to the situation and believe “some kind of genuinely independent investigation would be required to clear the air,” he said.

The EPO Administrative Council (AC) “has maintained complete silence” and taken no official position on the situation, which is strange given that it’s responsible for the appointment and the organ of the EPO that exercises disciplinary authority over the president and vice-presidents, the source, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution, said. The absence of a position was confirmed by EPO.

Batistelli and Topić, however, told Intellectual Property Watch that the allegations amount to a “smear campaign.”

The Vesna Stilin Claims

Topić was appointed to head the EPO’s Directorate-General Administration on 28 March 2012, “with the support of” Battistelli, an office press release said. Before that, he was director general of SIPO.

Vesna Stilin, whose complaint is now before the ECtHR, was assistant director in charge of copyright and related rights under Topić, and was working on the implementation of a “public lending right” for journalists and authors in Croatia, the source close to the situation said. At the time Topić’s first term at SIPO was ending in 2008, he had been implicated in several irregularities, and it was expected that his term wouldn’t be renewed, the source said.

Topić should not have been reappointed due to his previous track record which, “if it had been properly taken into consideration, would have resulted in him being deemed unfit for public office,” Stilin said. The irregularities under his management at SIPO have not been properly investigated and the government wasn’t properly informed about them, she said. In addition, the procedure leading to his reappointment “was tainted by a whole series of flaws and irregularities, some of these involving actions which were prima facie [evidence]” of a type of person, she said.

Stilin applied for Topić’s position but was unsuccessful. Once reappointed, Topić dismissed Stilin and abolished her department, an action that was “a completely arbitrary and unjustified measure involving an egregious abuse of authority,” Stilin said. She filed a series of complaints in the Croatian courts, all of which were dismissed, after which she sought relief from the ECtHR. That case, filed in 2011, remains unresolved.

Stilin also launched several lawsuits in Croatia against Topić, she said. In one, in the Penal Court of Zagreb, she accused him of buying his second SIPO term from the government; harming writers by ignoring the public lending right; and slandering her in his version of her dismissal, among other things, she said. In response, Topić apparently sued Stilin for libel, a matter that will be heard on 2 June, the source close to the situation said. Stilin put forward the same allegations in the Zagreb Civil Court, she said. That case is pending, as is a third matter, filed on 9 January 2013 with the public prosecutor, she said.

“Absurd Complaints”

“Vesna Stilin was dismissed by the government of Croatia, not by me, from her position as my assistant at SIPO,” Topić told Intellectual Property Watch. She applied for the director general position despite that fact that the application was “legally inadmissible and manifestly contrary to the procedure for appointing government officials, he said.

Stilin exhausted all available remedies before the government, the Administrative Court and the Constitutional Court of Croatia and lost all of the cases, he said. She then filed “absurd complaints” with the ECtHR, he said. “Her other false charges and denunciations against me to various bodies have all led to the same result: in each case, her allegations have been rejected after examination as entirely unfounded.”

Under the European Patent Convention, EPO vice presidents are appointed by the AC, as was the case with Topić, Battistelli said. He supported the candidacy because Topić “was a well-known and respected AC member, on the basis of his work in modernising the Croatian Office and developing [intellectual property] policy in Croatia, paving the way for accession to both the EPO and the EU,” Battistelli said.

Neither the AC nor Battistelli knew of the alleged facts against Topić at the time of his appointment, but since the charges have been made public they have all been cleared, Battistelli said.

“Unfortunately, with the amplifying effect of the internet, defamatory campaigns can reach a large audience without having to offer any proof,” he said.

European Parliament Petition

In December 2013, Juris Protecta submitted a petition (number 2848/2013) to the European Parliament Petitions Committee. In it, the organisation asked lawmakers to investigate the “serious deficiency in the governance” of the EPO, despite that fact that the patent office is not an EU body and lies outside parliamentary jurisdiction. The European Parliament “has a legitimate interest and an obligation to ensure that proper standards of governance prevail” at the patent office by virtue of the duties entrusted to the EPO under the unitary patent scheme, Juris Protecta said.

Croatian media has reported on the “Topić scandal” but nothing has been done, Juris Protecta Director Zlatko Zeljko told Intellectual Property Watch.

EU ParliamentPetitions Committee Administrator Jos Heezen confirmed in April that the petition had arrived but had not yet been processed. It will “be duly processed and presented” to committee members, he said. But Heezen said it’s unlikely to be declared admissible because the EPO is an international organization set up on the basis of the European Patent Convention. While all EU member states are members of the EPO, the EU itself isn’t, so it can’t influence parliament’s decision-making, he said.

Juris Protecta doesn’t expect anything from the European Parliament, but “this matter will be accordingly treated” in next year’s Croatian presidential election, Zeljko said. Rival candidates will take advantage of a scandal, involving allegedembezzlement of large amounts of fees for musicians’ IP rights, in which the current president and another official were supported by Topić when he was in charge of SIPO, he said.

“Racist Prejudice?”

Juris Protecta “consists of one man who has been spreading these allegations, apparently fabricated by Vesna Stilin, without even trying to contact me,” Topić told us. There are no civil proceedings or criminal charges against Topić in Croatia, and he has provided a required certificate showing no criminal record, he said. Stilin’s private lawsuit against him for alleged slander was dismissed, with Stilin ordered to pay all costs and legal fees, he said.

Asked what he’s doing to address this situation with EPO staff, Battistelli said Topić, like several other EPO managers, “has been the victim of a smear campaign, involving the circulation of anonymous letters, intended to undermine his credibility and capacity for action. I unreservedly condemn this kind of behaviour.”

The EPO president issued a 26 February 2013 memo to staff deploring the “defamation campaign” against his vice president and warning that anyone found to have played a role in it “will be called to account.

Battistelli added that he sometimes believes that “the thinking under the surface of these letters has a lot to do with discriminatory and even racist prejudice against people from this part of Europe.” As a “convinced European, I will always stand against this and make sure that all members of our staff, whatever their origin, feel at ease and respected at the Office.”

 

Dugie Standeford may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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