The European Patent Office (EPO) grants European patents for the Contracting States to the European Patent Convention. The EPO provides a single patent grant procedure, but not a single patent from the point of view of enforcement. Hence the patents granted are not European Union patents or even Europe-wide patents, but a bundle of national patents. Besides granting European patents, the EPO is also in charge of establishing search reports for national patent applications on behalf of the patent offices of Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, San Marino, and Turkey.
The European Patent Office is not a legal entity as such, but an organ of the European Patent Organisation, which has a legal personality.
The EPO headquarters are located in Munich, Germany. The EPO also has a branch in The Hague, Netherlands (which is actually located in Rijswijk), sub-offices in Berlin, Germany, and Vienna, Austria, and a "liaison bureau" in Brussels, Belgium. At the end of 2009, the European Patent Office had a staff of 6818 (with 3718 based in Munich, 2710 in Rijswijk, 274 in Berlin, 112 in Vienna and 4 in Brussels). The predecessor of the European Patent Office was the Institut International des Brevets or IIB.
The premises of the European Patent Office enjoy a form of extraterritoriality. In accordance with the Protocol on Privileges and Immunities, which forms an integral part of the European Patent Convention under Article 164(1) EPC, the premises of the European Patent Organisation, and therefore those of the European Patent Office, are inviolable. The authorities of the States in which the Organisation has its premises are not authorized to enter those premises, except with the consent of the President of the European Patent Office. Such consent is however "assumed in case of fire or other disaster requiring prompt protective action".
The European Patent Office is directed by a president, who is responsible for its activities to the Administrative Council. The president also represents the European Patent Organisation. The president has therefore a dual role: representative of the European Patent Organisation and head of the European Patent Office. The President of the European Patent Office is appointed by the Administrative Council. A majority of three-quarters of the votes of the Contracting States represented and voting in the Administrative Council is required for the appointment of the President.
More generally, the "management of the EPO is dominated by the delegates of the contracting States in the Administrative Council," these delegates being, according to Otto Bossung, primarily guided by their national interests rather than by supranational interests such as for instance the implementation of the EU internal market.
The official languages of the European Patent Office are English, French and German and publications including the European Patent Bulletin and Official Journal of the European Patent Office are published in all three of those languages.
Patent applications may be filed in any language provided that a translation into one of the official languages is submitted within two months. The official language that the application is filed in or translated into is taken to be the language of the proceedings and the application is published in that language. Documentary evidence may also be submitted in any language, although the EPO may require a translation.
Several Contracting States to the European Patent Convention have an official language which is not an official language of the EPO, such as Dutch, Italian or Spanish and these languages are referred to as "admissible non-EPO languages". Residents or nationals of such States may submit any documents subject to a time limit in an official language of that State and there is a shorter period of one month for filing a translation into an official language or the document is deemed not to have been filed. Many EPO fees are reduced by 20% for people who file patent application or other documents in an admissible non-EPO language and subsequently file the necessary translation.
The European Patent Office includes the following departments:A Receiving Section, responsible for the examination on filing and the examination as to formal requirements of European patent applications
Examining Divisions, responsible for prior art searches and the examination of European patent applications
Opposition Divisions, responsible for the examination of oppositions against any European patent
A Legal Division
Boards of Appeal, responsible for the examination of appeals,
An Enlarged Board of Appeal.
In practice, the above departments of European Patent Office are organized into five "Directorates-General" (DG), each being directed by a Vice-President: DG 1 Operations, DG 2 Operational Support, DG 3 Appeals, DG 4 Administration, and DG 5 Legal/International Affairs.
The European Patent Office does not make decisions on infringement matters. National courts have jurisdiction over infringement matters regarding European patents. Regarding the validity of European patents however, both the European Patent Office during opposition proceedings (Article 99 EPC) and national courts during nullity proceedings (Article 138 EPC) may decide to revoke a European patent. According to Sir Robin Jacob, the members of the EPO Boards of Appeal are "judges in all but name".
In the international procedure according to the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), the European Patent Office acts as a Receiving Office, an International Searching Authority (ISA), an International Preliminary Examining Authority (IPEA) and, with effect from 1 July 2010, as a so-called Supplementary International Searching Authority (SISA). The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) provides an international procedure for handling patent applications, called international applications, during the first 30 months after their first filing in any country party to the PCT. The European Patent Office does not grant "international patents," as such patents do not exist. After 30 months (or, for a few countries, after 20 months) an international application must be converted into national or regional patent applications, and then are subject to national/regional grant procedures.
As Supplementary International Searching Authority (SISA), the European Patent Office has announced that it will conduct no more than 700 supplementary international searches per year.
The EPO offers on its web site several free services, including Espacenet and Open Patent Services (OPS) for searching within its collection of patent documents, the legal texts published in its Official Journal, the European Patent Register containing legal information relating to published European patent applications and European patents (the European Patent Register also allowing the inspection of files under Article 128 EPC), and a publication server of the European patent applications and patents. There is also the epoline software for filing European patent applications online.
The EPO cooperates with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Japan Patent Office (JPO) as one of the Trilateral Patent Offices. It also works with the Japan Patent Office (JPO), the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO), the State Intellectual Property Office of the People's Republic of China (SIPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in a co-operation known as the "five IP offices" or IP5.
The main staff union active within the EPO is the "Staff Union of the European Patent Office" (SUEPO).
As an international organization, EPOorg enjoys immunity and national courts have -in principle- no jurisdiction regarding disputes in which EPO is a party. Labour disputes can be submitted by employees to the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILOAT). Courts in the Netherlands have however on occasion taken jurisdiction when it found a breach of fundamental principles of human rights, based on European Court of Human Rights case law. Jurisdiction was assumed for example because the ILOAT procedure (of over 3 years) was too lengthy for a process involving health issues or regarding a conflict with labour unions, as no appeal to ILOAT or any other judicial organization was possible. The background to the latter judgment was the ongoing conflict between EPO staff and management, in particular the refusal of EPO to recognise the staff unions, blocking of e-mail communication between the unions and their members and restriction of the right to strike. After service of the judgement to EPO, the then Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, Ivo Opstelten, ordered bailiffs not to perform service of the judgment. Opstelten’s intervention was criticised by a number of Dutch legal experts including Cedric Ryngaert, Professor of International Law in Utrecht, who considered the Minister's intervention to be unusual: "Basically he erodes the power of the Court. International organisations are going to increasingly put themselves above the law, which is already a problem now. Opstelten relies on an Act from the seventies, which must be applied dynamically. Instead he takes a very conservative view."
Labour relations at the EPO during the presidency of Benoît Battistelli have been strained and marked by conflict with a noticeable escalation during 2014. Staff discontent has been attributed to Battistelli's style of management which, according to reports in the German newspapers Die Zeit and Die Welt, is perceived by staff as being unduly autocratic and unsuited to a European intergovernmental body such as the EPO.
Concern has been expressed regarding the high number of suicides of EPO employees, five in over three years. The EPO President Battistelli dismissed the suggestions -by EPO staff union SUEPO- of a possible link between the suicide and working conditions at the EPO as "totally inappropriate" and accused the staff union of "abusing a personal tragedy and inciting controversy". The EPO staff union SUEPO said that a direct link between the suicide and the working conditions had not been demonstrated but that the Dutch Labour Inspectorate should be given the opportunity of investigating the matter.