Interview with John Gray, Chair of the Online Communications Committee

John Gray is a member of the epi Council and chair of the Online Communications Committee (OCC). He has over 30 years' experience in the patent attorney profession, working both in-house and in private practice firms of different sizes. Through his own consultancy in Scotland ,John provides support to other European patent professionals.

John Gray

What is the biggest issue for the OCC at present?

Probably the pace of change at the EPO. I’ve been involved for 3 terms of 3 years, and in that time we have moved from waiting for movement to happen on any issues to having to respond to new initiatives on many fronts. The problem we now have is contributing fast enough. The IT team at the EPO are keen to have user input so our challenge is to provide user feedback promptly – it’s a good problem to have, rather than not being able to contribute, which was sometimes the case before.

How often do you get asked for input by the EPO?

There has been one major joint meeting each year of the OCC and the EPO IT and customer service teams. In addition, some of the OCC users are members of e-SACEPO, which meets at least once a year and has in its remit the electronic patent process, so effectively we have face-to-face input twice a year. These meetings give an opportunity to discuss general issues and to check progress on specific topics. In between, we raise issues with the relevant people, especially issues brought to us by members. In the present EPO regime there are several different working parties, projects and pilots, and all epi members are encouraged to join these, but we make sure that OCC members are also involved. For example, there are groups directed to Online Filing 2.0, the “Front Office” software for the national offices coordinated with the EPO, and the “New User Area”, an overarching platform for users to interact with their EPO mailbox and other services

Have you had involvement with the increased use of ViCos in oral proceedings?

We provided input into the EPO’s adoption of ViCos for oral proceedings at the technical level. Our responsibility is at the technical level, how it works, rather than the political/legal level, and making sure the experience for those taking part by ViCo is as good as it can be. We worked with our colleagues on the European Patent Practice Committee (EPPC) in carrying out the survey of epi members, as well as taking part in the mock hearings for EPO Academy. In past years users had trouble persuading the EPO to allow more oral proceedings to take place by ViCo, and the situation has now flipped from the EPO being reluctant to provide ViCo oral proceedings to the EPO now wanting all oral proceedings to be by ViCo, whether a party wants it or not.

How has the pandemic affected the OCC?

The internal processes of the epi had to go online, so we helped the epi’s own meetings and communications go on-line.  I became a Zoom host for epi Council meetings! It’s been great to work closely with the Secretariat. 

How else have you been involved with epi matters?

A sideline has been supporting internal epi functions, for example by assisting the Secretariat in setting up the forums on the epi website. I am also a member of the Disciplinary Committee, but fortunately epi members are generally well-behaved! 

Do you see any conflicts between how large firms and individuals communicate with the EPO?

My mantra, every time we meet with the EPO, is to remind them that they are a monolithic organisation, but that their user base is very diverse, and that all their systems have to work for the sole practitioner, the small firm, and the industrial department, as well as the large attorney firm. The users may include administrative staff as well as attorneys. The EPO often seems to imagine that the representative is sitting alone driving the machine, which is of course not the case. It follows that when a system changes, a large group of administrative staff may need to be trained in the changes.

What do you look for in the EPO’s electronic tools?

The systems have to be able to cope with all aspects of the EPC and all the different user groups. We try to be constructive. Our job is to help the EPO do its job, and to help them resolve any problems where it does not work for a group of users, or does not implement some aspect of the EPC properly. If there is something that you cannot do in the online system but you can do legally, then the online system needs to be fixed.

Is there anything on your wish list for the future?

There are probably two things. Firstly, users are frustrated that a new system has not been developed to integrate the EPO and national filing systems, so that people don’t have to be trained to use two systems. Secondly, there is still no adequate IT-based safety backup system if your card is not working or the system is down. Most users would prefer not to have to use fax as a back up.

Oh... and a long-felt want is for EPO communications to come to us in encoded form, so that they can be processed more easily and safely. 

Any last words?

The role of the OCC chair is an enjoyable one. A lot of good things are happening and moving in the right direction. Our remit concerns the daily practical interactions between the users and the EPO, which promotes a co-operative relationship with our counterparts at the EPO. I never miss an opportunity to praise the EPO’s information systems, including the EP register, espacenet and the translation tools, which are invaluable and improving all the time.