World Intellectual Property Review (WIPR) is reporting that the European Patent Office, EPO, has threatened Roy Schestowitz with a defamation lawsuit over a blog post he did. Schestowitz writes the Techrights blog, which I personally think can go overboard with some of its stories at times. However, to argue that his stories are defamation, especially by a government agency, is crazy. Back in October, Schetowitz had a story claiming that the EPO was prioritizing patent applications from large companies like Microsoft to “foster a better esprit de service.” I actually don’t think the program described by the EPO actually sounds that crazy, and the EPO’s response isn’t that crazy either — it’s just about more efficiently handling certain patent applications to keep the office from getting swamped. Indeed, it does seem like Schestowitz may have overreacted with his interpretation of the memo. But, misinterpreting something is hardly defamation.
In fact, to argue that Schestowitz’s post is defamatory is crazy. Threatening Schestowitz with a defamation claim is much crazier and dangerous than even Schestowitz’s own interpretation of the EPO’s memo. If you’re working for a government agency, such as the EPO, you have to be willing to accept some amount of criticism, even if you disagree with it. To claim it’s defamation and to threaten a lawsuit is really, really screwed up. Frankly, this calls into question what the EPO is focused on much more than any claims of favoring large companies. Also bizarre is the fact that WIPR edited its own story to remove any mention of what Schestowitz’s original blog posts were about in the first place. They had originally included a sentence briefly describing the original Techrights blog post that got the EPO upset, but then deleted that part.
The EPO has been coming under a fair bit of criticism lately, and the entire organization appears to be astoundingly thin-skinned. A few months ago, the office apparently blocked access to Techrights altogether from within its network. That seems like a pretty strange move in the first place. Florian Mueller (and, yes, I know that many people here don’t trust Mueller, but…) has pointed out how absolutely ridiculous the EPO can be about just about anything related to how it works:
The European Patent Office is the last dictatorship on Central European soil. Local police cannot allowed to enter the EPO’s facilities without an invitation from the president. National court rulings cannot be enforced; compliance is voluntary. Employees and visitors are subjected to covert surveillance. And if employees are fired (or “suspended”), which just happened to several staff representative, they won’t get their day in court for about ten years.
The EPO’s leaders have a rather selective attitude toward the law. When it’s about their wrongdoings, they want their organization to be a lawless, autocratic island that disrespects human rights. But when the rules of the world around the EPO come in handy, the leadership of the EPO tries to leverage them against those who dare to criticize it.
I’m having trouble thinking of any other governmental agency that has ever threatened a public critic with defamation. Basic concepts around free speech suggest that the EPO should suck it up. If it disagrees with Schestowitz’s interpretation of what it’s doing, then it can come out and explain its side of the story. Threatening him with defamation actually only makes me think that perhaps his interpretation hits closer to home than I originally believed.