For the half-year to 30 June 2014, the IPKat's regular team is supplemented by contributions from guest bloggers Alberto Bellan, Darren Meale and Nadia Zegze.

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Thursday, 7 February 2013

Does it pay to be a patent examiner? Part II

'Shambolic pay system' was the heading that greeted this Kat when he opened an attachment to an email from Prospect, the union which represents patent examiners and other IP specialists in the United Kingdom.  Reading on, the Kat was informed as follows:
‘Prospect members at the Intellectual Property Office are to take industrial action in February after a ballot of members voted with a huge majority in favour. In a turnout of 65%, 88% voted in favour of strike action and 90% for action short of a strike.

Members will start their action with a walk out at 12:30 on Friday 8 February [that's tomorrow] and a half-day strike followed by a work-to-rule.

Over the week leading up to the day of action, members and staff will sign pledge cards committing them to a work-to-rule. As they walk out, their pledge cards will be collected and handed to the IPO. The work-to-rule will continue throughout February. 
Prospect negotiator Helen Stevens said:
“Members at the IPO have been treated worse than other public sector workers. Austerity for them has meant not only a pay freeze, but a freeze to their progression to the rate for the job. This has cost them large sums of money and left a pay system that is fundamentally unfair and frankly shambolic. Our members at the IPO are highly skilled and work hard to support British business [and indeed much non-British business too]. Any hope of economic recovery depends on people like them. If they were in the private sector [or, it seems, working for the European Patent Office: see Part I of this post here] they would be in receipt of bonuses.”
Eleanor Wade, Prospect branch Chair, said:
 “The government's policies on pay have left the IPO with an unfair and discriminatory pay system and with equal pay cases outstanding. Central government pay restrictions are stopping the IPO from using its own resources to make a fair pay offer to staff, putting vital support for innovation at risk. Prospect members at the IPO are committed to fighting for fair pay.” 
Stevens said denying progression also raises issues of fairness, equal pay and retention of staff.
“Many patent examiners are working extra hours because of problems recruiting to these posts. This level of personal sacrifice is too much. The result of this ballot shows members' determination to protest at such unfairness.”
The IPKat has met many examiners at the IPO over the years. On the whole he has found them witty, perceptive, highly educated souls who take their work very seriously and who display scarcely more militancy in their professional capacities than do the sheep that graze the Welsh hillside.  This made the voting figures cited above all the more remarkable.

Pays better than being
an assistant examiner
But what do patent examiners earn? Do they have a just case or, like the sheep, are they merely bleating in unison?  The salary of a new associate examiner, who will require an appropriate science degree and a reasonable quantity of literacy and communication skills starts at £24,536 (inclusive of a recruitment and retention allowance) and remains at that level until promotion to Patent Examiner after a minimum of 2 years (around 3 years on average).  This compares favourably with the £14,560 to £16,640 starting salary that he would receive for picking up litter from the streets.  However, it's far less than he could expect to earn from driving a train. One can make many other comparisons, if one so wishes.

Once you're a patent examiner, what happens next?  Eleanor Wade explains:
"There is no progression through the Patent Examiner span either, so after promotion Examiners can expect their salary to remain static again, at around £30K (including recruitment and retention allowance) until they gain promotion to Senior Examiner. Senior Examiners are paid £44,173 on promotion (again inclusive of a recruitment and retention allowance), nominally after an average of 7 years examining, and have no way of progressing further up the pay span. The highest paid senior examiners are on £56K and some have not had a pay increase at all for a decade while the pay scales caught up with them. Since progression was withdrawn (it was last paid in August 2009) staff below the top of their span across the IPO cannot move any further up it. So we have people doing the same job to the same standards for as much as 20% less than their colleagues".
Merpel is sure that, if there's one thing that is more annoying than not being paid a salary that is commensurate with one's education, training and experience, it's being paid less than someone else who is doing the same work as well as you are.

The Kat team is in agreement that, in principle, every person is entitled to expect reasonable remuneration for his or her work and that this principle applies as much to patent examiners as to anyone else.  It is plain that the IPO is not its own master when it comes to setting and implementing its own pay policy and allocating funds received in the manner of its choice.  Sadly, this is not a new problem. For years the United States Patent and Trademark Office saw its fee income siphoned off for other Federal purposes, leaving it at the mercy of a larger political debate and dangerously under-funded (even now, while officially in favour, the USPTO still struggles to control its own purse-strings: see eg here and here).

Being kind to patent applicants
is bound to make more friends than
opting for industrial action ...
This Kat is uncomfortable with any form of industrial action that hits bona fide users, such as strikes and walk-outs ["walks-out?" Merpel wonders ...], both because he has been personally inconvenienced by such activities in the past on the part of postmen, air traffic controllers, miners, London Underground staff, banking employees and others -- and none has really achieved the desired end. He wonders whether there isn't a much better way for patent examiners to bring their grievances to the attention of a far wider public.  Why not take a more applicant-friendly view of the patent applications before them, construe the prior art as narrowly as possible, with just a cursory nod to that confounded busybody the person skilled in the art -- and grant as many patents as they possibly can, in the shortest possible time?  That way, the British examiners will make loads of friends among patent applicants and, in probability, patent litigation lawyers, they will eliminate any backlog that might otherwise have been lurking in the niches of Newport -- and they will soon find that the EPO, WIPO and a dozen or so of the most patent-responsible governments in the world will be on the phone to the UK government in two shakes of a cat's tail, begging them to give in!

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is the Patent Office not a self-funding trading fund, and thus neither contributes to nor is a drain on public funding? If so, and I think it is, there is no basis for the argument that austerity programmes should have any impact on the PO. Pay restraint at the PO cannot affect in a meaningful way government finances.

Although, if there really is a hole in the IPO's finances that need plugging, perhaps the EPO could use some of its spare cash washing around to bail out the impecunious UK PO.

Anonymous said...

For UKIPO Examiners to be walking-out they must be close to starving. It's a fact of life though that if you don't stand up for what you deserve you will be taken advantage of, even by the government. I wish them the very best of luck.

SG said...

I'd like to echo both Jeremy and Anonymous 09:52:00's sentiments, and say that it really must have become unbearable for this walk-out to occur. In my experience IPO Examiners are some of the most reasonable and conciliatory people you are likely to meet. I hope the powers that be appreciate this, and come to their senses soon. Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

I doubt if today's strike will have much of an impact on the IPO's operations in the short term. However, it does highlight the effect that the current pay policy is having on examiner morale. This creates a longer term risk for the future viability of the IPO as an examining office if examiners become so disenchanted that they quit and recruitment in the current climate is difficult or impossible. Probably not what the IPO's patent examiners would want but it should be of concern to all users, particularly with the uncertainties of the unified patent just around the corner.

Anonymous said...

I also wish the examiners the best of luck. They have to deal regularly with some highly-skilled and far better paid patent attorneys, with a degree of courtesy which sadly is all too often unreciprocated by their private sector adversaries.

Anonymous said...

There is a serious argument that official fees charged by the IPO are too low. If an applicant wants to obtain patent protection around the world, the total proportion of the resulting cost that is UK IPO fees is negligible. As a patent attorney I would point out that EPO fees are high enough to put people off applying, but UKIPO fees are not in any way a barrier to applications. It is hard to argue that raising UK fees to provide better facilities and better pay for examiners would have any material effect.

Anonymous said...

I go with fellow Anonymous at 11:56. Some of the UKIPO's fees are laughable. A good-quality search for £150!!! This is giving it away! I have US clients who file their home applications and then ask me to file a UK application purely for the benefit of the search. I realise that the German Patent Office does the same, but there must be a reasonable middle ground, between the UKIPO's microscopic fee and the EPO's outrageous one.

Anonymous said...

Three brief points:

Firstly, first anonymous is right. the IPO is a trading fund and so any salary increase would not come out of general government coffers. Indeed, central government is mising out on the extra income tax that would be paid on the higher salaries! And the IPO's finances are in good shape (unlike during a brief hiccup a few years ago when the financial crisis hit) so the money is there.

Secondly, the problem with the examiner job is that you have to spend years learning skills that are of little use anywhere else, so you become trapped in the Office. This is why the benefits you get once you're stuck have to match what you were offered to be enticed in. At present many examiners are complaining that what they will now be getting does not match what was offered - some turned down other jobs to come to the IPO and are now finding they would have been better off not coming.

But thirdly - I'm rather shocked by the suggestion that examiners should be granting cases which they would normally object to. (Do you not put such courageous suggestions into the mouth of Merpel?) The Office has a duty to third parties to make sure they are not stopped from doing what they are allowed to do, as well as a duty to its actual paying cutomers. And if we grant rights to an applicant, and his patent is later revoked - and he is charged for the lawyers' expenses in doing so - this will make for much unhappiness all round.

Anonymous said...

Some rambling thought:
1. UK IPO fees are too low
2. I would not want to be a patent examiner in the UK.
3. EPO examiners are massively overpaid.
4. UK scientists are hugely underpaid too so recruitment into the patent office probably isn't too difficult.
5. Everyone should have the right to withdraw labour to resolve unfairness.
6. It is for the examiners to determine if their action is justifiable and whether I support them or not is irrelevant.
7. The comparison with attorney salaries is irrelevant - different jobs and responsibilities and nothing to stop examiners changing roles if they are up to it.
8. The probably have a case for being treated unfairly.
9. On that sort of money they can afford a pretty plush residence in Newport.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous@21:22:

1. Ok
2. You're apparently not alone.
3. Why don't you apply for a job, then? The EPO is hiring.
4. Are there still any UK scientists? Seriously, despite its "massive" pay, even the EPO has trouble hiring in Britain.
5. Ok.
6. Ok.
7. Not so irrelevant: it's basically the same labour pool, and the skillset isn't so different. And I say this as a former EPO examiner who left the "gilded cage" to work for the "dark side".
8. Most certainly.
9. Do you live in Newport yourself? If not, why don't you move there? I hear housing is cheap.

Ron said...

I was an examiner with the Patent Office from 1976 to 1989. At that time, Civil Service pay was determined by a pay review board that compared your job with an equivalent in the private sector. The examiner's analogue was an associate, and a Senior Examiner's, an equity partner in private practice. Examiners were on the whole self-motivated and required no managing as such once their probationary period was completed.

Circa 1990 I attended a meeting at CIPA about the move to Wales and the prospective change to Agency status in which the Patent Office's speakers were looking forward to being freed from their shackles and being able to offer applicants the services that they were at that time unable to offer due to insufficient staff. While the IPO is indeed a self-financing trading fund, it is not autonomous and still has to meet targets laid down by the Minister for the BIS. The Steering Group minutes http://www.ipo.gov.uk/steer-minutes
for the last few years make frequent references to the conflict between the needs of the business and government targets.

As well as continuing concern being raised as to the vires of the IPO's trading fund income being used for purposes other than IP, the latest (July 2012) minutes show that the IPO is having problems attracting staff:

"9.4 The under spend in Patents Directorate was due to pay costs, as they had not recruited as many patent examiners as budgeted for. 19 examiners had been recruited and a further 5 were due to start in September. This was not an under spend as such; the IPO had not been able to attract as many examiners as initially planned and had not been able to over recruit ..... The impact of the Government’s pay policy could impact negatively on the retention of staff."

The minutes also show that "staff engagement " in the IPO has been well below the civil service average for some time. Improving staff engagement was one of last year's ministerial targets last year and is mentioned in the annual report to Parliament but very much glossed over.

To quote from the IPO's latest 5 year Corporate strategy: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/ipostrategy.pdf

Page 22

"Well-led and engaged staff with the right skills who live our values and work together to achieve our goals"

"Our people will say that the IPO is a good place to work. They
will be able to explain the organisation’s priorities and purpose
and will want to contribute to achieving its goals."

"Engaging our people and making IPO a good place to work
Recent people survey results show we have some way to go to improve staff engagement with our vision, goals and values.

We will need to ensure that we work together across the organisation and that our people embody the appropriate values to successfully deliver our goals in this strategy.

We will achieve this by strengthening cross-organisational working, refreshing our organisation’s values, aligning corporate goals with team and individual objectives, and helping leaders build the skills they need to engage and empower their staff."


An examiner's job involves the ability to critically analyse facts and to see though any rhetoric and spin that an applicant may advance. Examiners will therefore not be taken in by the spin that it seems that they are being fed these days. Why would highly educated and analytical staff who have had their pay frozen, their working environment worsened by having to work in open plan offices instead of their former individual offices, having had to work substantial amounts of overtime to compensate for staff shortages at a time when millions of pounds are being siphoned off by the BIS every year, and that staff in other departments of the BIS that are not self-funded are still getting paid increments, miraculously become more engaged by "strengthening cross-organisational working " etc?

Good luck to them.

Anonymous said...

How about the Administrative Council agrees under A.39 EPC to only take 25% of the renewal fees paid in respect of EPs?!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, given that almost all assistant USPTO examiners earn more than the most "senior" UKIPO examiner, and have the ability to live in fairly cheap areas due to telework opportunities, and EPO examiners earn like twice the pay and hardly pay income tax, and get private schooling for their kids...you better walk out for a while :) Maybe ask the German Patent Office to join, they're in the same boat.

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