In European IP circles the question of who runs the European Patent Office (EPO) has not been answered by the announcement of the successful candidate for the EPO presidency. There were two winners: both from vastly different backgrounds and cultures; neither apparently with the overwhelming support needed to move the EPO forward at a political level.

The result is seen by many as a significant political compromise. Seriously affected by such tangential issues as political allegiances during the invasion of Iraq, Britain and France decided to drop their individual claims and present joint candidates for the six-year term of presidency. In the absence of a better solution, the bid succeeded and next year will see Alain Pompidou become the fourth president of the EPO.

Meanwhile, Alison Brimelow, presently chief executive of the UK Patent Office, will start a three-year warm-up for her term as the president. She has already decided to leave her present position at the end of 2003 and will have time to follow her co-president's activities from a suitable vantage point on the EPO Administrative Council.

As president of the EPO, Pompidou should have considerable powers over an organization covering 27 countries and a population of some 500 million. He is responsible only to the Administrative Council of the EPO. In practice, however, his strong political backing by the French government and the extensive lobbying by the French former EPO vice-president, Jacques Michel, indicate that he is likely to remain well disposed to Gallic influence. Pompidou has an extensive scientific background and considerable political experience as a member of the European Parliament from 1989 to 1999. However, he is a relative novice to the world of patents and is expected to be heavily reliant on his backers for most of his term of office.

The Administrative Council itself is composed of two representatives from each member state. They have the power to appoint senior personnel and members of the boards of appeal, and to decide on certain aspects of the European Patent Convention according to complicated voting procedures. In general, the representatives on the council are themselves the heads of the national patent offices with many years of IP experience and their own interests to defend. The heavyweights on the council are not likely to make life easy for a relative newcomer. The increase in the size of the council has also seriously affected its ability to agree on various issues - the appointment of the president being a clear example. Part of the intended power-sharing deal was that Brimelow should spend the coming three years as either chairman or deputy chairman of the council. However, the remaining council members were unable to agree on such an appointment and yet further compromises may be needed before any decision is concluded.

The recent struggle for the EPO presidency illustrates the importance attached to the post. In its infancy, the EPO was seen as a relatively dull organization, operating outside the context of the European Union. The post of president was a titbit offered to smaller nations as a compromise for greater concessions elsewhere. Almost 30 years on, the EPO now represents an annual European income of some €2 billion in the form of patent and renewal fees that must somehow be distributed between the member states. It also provides a significant industrial lever that can be manipulated to great effect. France and Britain have traditionally been poles apart in their attitude towards the European patent system. France gave up much of its own patent administration capability at an early stage and believes strongly in the centralized EPO system. Britain, like Germany, has always seen a significant role for the national patent offices and has sought to keep the influence of the EPO within limits.

Many parties had hoped to see the election of a president with strong European credentials and sufficient influence at the European Council of Ministers to get the Community patent back on course. Perhaps this will be Pompidou's trump. His time at the European Parliament has made him aware of the mechanisms of European legislation and his close political ties in France may help overcome some of the language issues that have so far dogged progress. However, this may come at the expense of globalization and the present strong allegiance with the United States. His Republican background may well put Europe first and he has also spoken out strongly on issues such as the patenting of genetic sequences.

Internal EPO management is the one area where Pompidou could have a free hand to exercise his power. However, few expect him to be either interested in or capable of understanding the complex issues of the 5,000-plus staff working within the organization. Sufficient internal disruption is already expected as the five incumbent EPO vice-presidents prepare to swap positions. According to protocol, the president and vice-presidents must all be of different nationalities - Lionel Baranes (France) and Paul Kyriakides (Cyprus/Britain) will therefore also have to rotate as the presidents change.

According to the UK Patent Office website in May 2003: "Big tasks are pressing and the [EPO] needs a clearly mandated leader... The issues facing the EPO cannot be addressed by a caretaker president." If Brimelow and Pompidou can pull their weight together and galvanize the support of the other member states, they will go far. Anything else and the coming years will be something of an impasse.

For further information on this topic, please contact Paul Clarkson (GB) or Marc Broyde (FR) at Howrey Simon Arnold & White by telephone (+44 20 7065 6657) or by fax (+44 20 7065 6650) or by email ([email protected] or [email protected]).