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Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Laddie inaugural lecture

Last night the IPKat had the pleasure of attending the lecture that formally transformed Sir Hugh Laddie QC into Professor Hugh Laddie QC. The inaugural lecture took place at UCL’s Gower Street campus and was entitled ‘The Insatiable Appetite for Intellectual Property Rights’ [IPKat disclaimer: one of the IPKat’s paws has a sizable bias in favour of UCL.]

The main plank of Sir Hugh’s argument was that although intellectual property, when delineated correctly, can act as an incentive for investment in useful things, the prevailing philosophy is that if intellectual property is good, let’s have more of it. This isn’t too surprising because IP rights are valuable assets, and those in possession of valuable assets want to make sure their assets become even more valuable but expanding their protection.

Sir Hugh went on to outline how this thirst for more and stronger rights has had absurd effects across the board in IP. Particular favourites of the IPKat were in trade marks, the former Department of Constitutional Affairs’ registration of FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, in copyright, an American professor’s calculation that he infringed copyright on average 80-odd times a day, leaving himself liable for approximately $12m of damages a day and in patents, John Keogh’s Australian application for ‘a circular transportation facilitation device’ (lovingly know to the general public as ‘the wheel’).

In the light of such arguably undeserved protection, it’s not surprise that the debate has become high tension, but such tension isn’t conducive to a sensible debate. Cries for the scrapping of IP rights aren’t necessarily helpful, as the rights, when correctly defined, do serve an economically useful function and in some industries, such as in pharmaceuticals, expanded rights would enable a more long term strategy for development and could lead to a lowering of prices, facilitating greater access.

The key, according to Sir Hugh, was to recognise the need to escape from the idea that all types of invention and copyright works deserve the same protection, and require it for their incentivisation function to work.

The IPKat says that it’s nice to hear from someone who is pro-IP, but also pro-sensible limits on IP. Sir Hugh’s suggestion is perhaps most needed in the patent field, where one size basically does fit all. In copyright, there is already an attempt to give different lengths and types of protection to different types of work, but even the ‘lowest’ protection is quite long and relatively wide. Trade marks might need another solution though. Arguably they don’t rely on the incentivisation justification, and instead are there at least in part to protect consumers. To the extent that trade marks continue to function as trade marks, this justification continues.

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