IP Tsar: is it worth a try?

Writing in The Lawyer today ("Opinion: UK economy needs an IP tsar"), Mark Owen is one of the first folk in the IP field to assess the UK intellectual property landscape after the axing of the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (SABIP). This is what he has to say:
"Established two years ago as an independent adviser to the Government on IP policy, [SABIP] had little visible effect on the Government’s understanding of IP [this is not surprising: evidence-based policy assessment is a slow process at the best of times, and getting an embattled government to absorb IP concepts is like trying to get small children to eat spinach] and did little to improve IP policy. To IP solicitors and barristers it was largely irrelevant, other than that its lengthy outpourings were yet another stack of paper to get one’s head around in case they said anything new or provided important clues as to policy, which they rarely did [Many practitioners kindly offered their time, experience and judgment to SABIP projects, and may be wondering why they bothered]. Its passing will be mourned only by the academic community who wrote its many reports [SABIP didn't give the academic community an easy time. I've never experienced research under a more intrusive and interfering taskmaster in my career].

But the rise and fall of SABIP is important because it shows how little any government understands or cares about IP, despite regular lip service to its role in the economy [This is because (i) there are no votes in IP and (ii) most serious policy is shaped at EU level anyway].

So what? Isn’t IP just a small, unimportant area of practice full of geeks, which many large firms stopped doing years ago? Yes and no, as there’s a bigger picture here.

The last government peppered its soundbites with its enthusiasm for the ’knowledge economy’, putting ’Creative Britain’ at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the recession and calling it key to our competitiveness in the global market [The gap between this mantra any any tangible action became increasingly annoying]. The coalition says very much the same. There’s much that can be done to make IP policy serve the interests of the economy and the country as a whole, with potentially significant gains in education, competitiveness and jobs. But our current process of government makes it unlikely that this nettle will ever be firmly grasped.

Government IP policy-making has been characterised by shameless buck-passing dressed up as democracy, in the form of endless and repetitive consultations year after year, with little apparently ever learnt or carried forward [Indeed! Though I'm not sure if it's a case of passing the buck or too many people thinking they've firmly grasped the buck when they haven't ...]. If the knowledge ­economy and Creative Britain are to mean anything, then modern, cogent and flexible [careful: these words are apt to be found in government soundbites] IP laws will have to be at the heart of it. To achieve that, the Government needs to start taking responsibility and make the effort to understand IP and how it should fit with other areas of policy, rather than asking bodies such as SABIP to tell it what to think.

IP should be near the centre of economic and education policy, with a dedicated and serious minister [A good start]. Too often it has been infected by government short-termism, becoming a ministerial game of pass-the-parcel. Lord Triesman was the first IP minister, appointed with knowledge economy fanfare, who hoped to make radical changes but who the Government then moved before he had had a chance to effect much change [He had no IP background or knowledge at all]. We then had high hopes of his successor David Lammy [Baroness Morgan was actually next. Totally miscast and way out of her depth], as he was a qualified lawyer, but who was also in and out of the post quickly and will be ­remembered largely for drawing a curious analogy between file-sharing and taking free soap from hotel rooms [also remembered for arriving late for most public airings and for being spirited away before I could ask him any questions]. Baroness Wilcox now has the portfolio, though her interest in IP is as yet unknown to most of us [some useful background though]. Worryingly perhaps, IP is no longer even seen as sufficiently important to form part of her ministerial title.

In contrast, the US - in so many ways the technological innovator we dream of being - now has an IP tsar [Victoria Espinel], with a direct link to the president, as well as powerful heads of its copyright and patent/trade mark functions.

It may be that Vince Cable’s decision to axe SABIP presages a new more serious approach to IP policy. But the omens look bad. This is not the glamorous end of government, there are few cuts left to be made and little chance of grabbing the headlines. What is required is careful and incremental change, thought through by government departments with real expertise and interest in the area. But what hope of this is there if governments are always focused upon the short term and capable ministers upon further advancement? What we need is an IP tsar who really gets it [It's worth a shot, so long as the IP Tsar has a serious and well-defined role, rather being some sort of ombudsman, plus powers and resources]".
What are your thoughts on the subject? (Please post them below, so that everyone can share them ...)
IP Tsar: is it worth a try? IP Tsar: is it worth a try? Reviewed by Jeremy on Monday, August 02, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. "IP should be near the centre of economic and education policy" Nowhere more so than in higher education is the gap between 'importance of IP education' rhetoric and 'supoort for IP education' activity more keenly felt. It is shameful that UK graduates of science, technology, engineering, creative industry and advisory profession programmes continue to leave university without ever having been introduced to IP concepts, which are essential tools - to maximise the commercial potential of innovation, invention and creative ideas AND to minimise the risks of using IP that isn't yours

  2. So.. the answer following the abolition of SABIP - probably with a staff supporting them - is to appoint an individual (possibly with staff supporting them).

    The solution to an organisation who engaged in lots of talking and didn't really get anywhere with the government is the appointment of a person who will engage in lots of talking and not achieve anything. At least we get accountability!

    I am very fortunate to have made the acquaintance of a number of lobbyists. The unanimous opinion is this - to effect change, we must create word of mouth and movement in the electorate. Isn't it strange how much we hear about killer foxes in our gardens now...

    The appointment of a Tsar would create interesting possibilities, and greater accountability. In relation to the IPO, I am not sure what they could add - to my mind the IPO does a fantastic job already.

    In the area of policy, there is such divergent opinion that I suspect that the Tsar would need to consult far and wide. More paper, more delay, no change.

    Mark is right to highlight the importance of IP staying in the minds of the government, but I suspect that the appointment of a Tsar would add little

  3. This article is very close to a briefing I gave to a colleague recently. The IPO is good in general, but it provides an excuse for others to avoid addressing major IP related issues across their ministries. A minister in the cabinet office should carry this coordinating role, and they and the all party group on IP should hold the government to account for the gap between rhetoric and reality. How can the UK be projecting a coherent policy position in brussels without that, and who would Espinel call in our government to discuss her strategic plan?

  4. This should have been a letter to the FT from industry leaders, the CBI, the law society, BACFI etc, rather than resting in a trade journal.

  5. OMG - another spelling spat may be in store:

    Tsar v. Czar

    See one of Jeremy's other multiple personalities here:


  6. Triesman was actually excellent, as was Lord Sainsbury before him - I am afraid the real problem lies with the Patent Office (to use its legal name). Subsequent weak ministers were captive of bad advice from the IPO. IP policy should be decided in BIS (where there are some excellent officials) in conversation with a shaken-up IPO.

  7. I find this almost comically parochial. Why on earth should we have a Minister for IP? There are too many Ministers already; we need fewer and need them to be thinking about the big stuff, which usually isn't IP. I fear that, like others have said, creation of a new post would just be more bureaucracy. And a Tzar? Really?

    I'd also be interested to hear specific examples of successes and failures of our recent Ministers, and why you think they came about, as many seem to rate Lord Sainsbury, who never had IP in his title. Maybe the answer is less IP in government, not more.

  8. Good that SABIP was abolished.

    Not sure what the IP tsar would actually do.

    Is there any point to junior ministers?

    Isn't all new IP Brussels-led? Wouldn't it be more useful to increase our ministerial team in Brussels than worry about what Lord Bumble the junior UK minister has to say?

  9. Nicholas II or Ivan the Terrible? (Or, in these non-sexist times, Catherine the Great). Or should you perhaps remember the rabbi's prayer for the Tsar in "Fiddler on the roof"? - "May God bless and keep the Tsar - far away from us!"

  10. At the most recent Marks & Designs Forum which I attended at the IPO on behalf of FICPI, Andy Layton announced that the IPO had recently signed off on an exercise for their senior economist to start a research exercise looking at the value of intangibles to the national economy. This is, they say, their first output following the "Branding in a Modern Economy"
    conference and seems to be a step in the right direction. All of the professional organisations present were supportive of the IPO's efforts.

    FICPI, along with the other professional organisations in attendance, will be sending letters of support for this initiative to Baroness Wilcox.

  11. The whole point of SABIP was to diffuse responsibility.

    By appealing to "evidence based" policy officialdom can avoid doing anything that might attract attention by pleading that the evidence needs to be gathered.

    Additionally SABIP was crippled from the start by the requirement that no one on it should have any form of practical knowledge of IP.

    I am not sure that the post of Tsar would be attractive. SABIP got axed - would a Tsar be taken down to a basement in Newport?

  12. As a member of SABIP's Copyright Expert Panel, and having experienced 'de-quangoing' at first hand, I want to endorse Mark's call for ensuring that IP is at the heart of Government policy. John Alty, the IPO's new CEO, has written on the IPO website that "For me, the IPO’s work is at the heart of the UK’s future prosperity. Knowledge creation and exploitation will deliver the high value added business we need in the UK. That gives all of us a big responsibility to achieve our potential and use our expertise to deliver for our customers."
    That's good to hear. So the key question is: how does the Government deliver on that aim?
    I think the key is 'joined up' thinking. IPO is part of BIS, within the portfolio of Baroness Wilcox as Parliamentary Secretary for Business, Innovation and Skills. But the Creative Industries sits partly in BIS and partly within DCMS - Ed Vaizey is the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He reports to the Business Secretary as well as to the Culture Secretary in respect of the digital economy and telecommunications.
    We live in tough times so whether we'll get the 'IP Tsar' to pull it all together may be doubtful. But what we can and should do as the IP legal community is to make a strong call on Government to ensure that as regards the creative industries BIS and DCMS deliver 'joined up' policy making. Any changes in IP policy must be evidence based and designed to help, and not hinder, the UK Creative Industries fulfil their full economic, social and cultural potential.
    As IP professionals, we can offer Government, especially the IPO, our experience of what's needed to make the IP system function efficiently and effectively.
    IPO will be looking for external oversight and challenge to its research programme panel , so let's be ready to offer it. Let's be ready to propose answers and solutions to the really tough questions such as "what is needed from a policy perspective to make permissions management easy, efficient and economical so that innovative new business models can flourish and reward creators, producers, publishers and others in the value chain?"; "what are the important differences between the various sectors of the creative industries that must be borne in mind in policy making?"
    Now is a great opportunity for us as IP professionals to make our voice heard. The issues are just too important for us not to do so.
    Laurence Kaye

  13. Ruth Soetendorp is correct. However in the past I have attempted to remedy the situation but met a turf war. In educational organisations IP belongs to a different department than those dealing with science and engineering. There is either no cooperation or even antipathy between the departments which frustrates any progress in IP education.


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