IP law covers quite some ground, from high-tech inventions to product designs to computer software to brand names. As you might expect, it’s practised by a wide range of lawyers, from bearded engineering types in polyester trousers to trendy dudes with ponytails. Patent attorneys sometimes refer to their field as hard IP, and everything else as soft IP. They’re the kind of people who at varsity told jokes like this: Q: What’s the difference between a pizza and a humanities’ graduate? A: A pizza can feed a family of four. Trade mark attorneys, acutely aware of the fact that their profession was once discussed in the magazine Private Eye under the heading ‘What a pathetic way to make a living’, grimace and bear it. Although patent and trade mark attorneys work in the same firms, they have precious little in common.
These tensions surface from time to time. The UK government, aware of the fact that it needs to do radical things to stimulate its economy, has made some welcome proposals to reform IP, and in particular to help the new business models arising from the digital age. It says this: ‘An IP system created in the era of paper and pen may not fit the age of broadband and satellites. We must ensure it meets the needs of the digital age.’ Issues to be looked at include the barriers to new internet-based business models, including the cost of obtaining permissions from existing rights-holders; the link between IP and competition law; the cost of IP; and the desirability of applying US-style rules about the use of copyright material without the rights-holder's permission. There are also proposals to improve the quality of patent examination by allowing for peer review. All good and exciting stuff, but don’t expect to see anything like this here.
So is everyone in IP pleased? Patent attorneys can barely contain themselves, but trade mark attorneys are a bit miffed that it's all about patents and copyright. Are trade marks being under-valued in the debate on innovation and stimulating economic growth they ask? As they remind anyone who cares to be reminded, trade marks don’t only act as signs of origin for consumers, but also act as motivators for businesses to invest. Brands, they say, are very valuable, and investment in branding is at the same level as investment in R&D. In summary: ‘The link between innovation and branding is twofold: brand reputations act as a spur to ongoing innovation in product performance which in turn drives economic growth; and branding supports the take-up of innovation by consumers, providing consumers with the confidence to try out new ways of living and working. Original ideas and new ways of thinking are important but they must be commercialized successfully to generate wealth. That is where trade marks and branding have a significant contribution to make’.
So there you have it, a profession manages to justify its existence. Whew!
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