IP Offices still searching for (the holy grail) of innovation and incentives: the view from IPWeek @ SG

There was a time when national IP offices were cozy little operations, dealing with the registration of patents, trademarks and designs. Various national offices did a better or worse job at this, but all agreed- the task of the IP office was ….well, mostly technical and administrative. No one came looking for guidance on how the fruits of protected IP was meant to filter through the greater world of business and industry.

No more. While not the stuff of racy headlines, one of the most important dynamics running through the IP world is how national IP offices are coming to terms with this expanded role, easily defined in the abstract, but surprisingly challenging to implement.

Against this backdrop, this Kat felt the undercurrents of uncertainty that characterized the First Plenary Session (““Anchoring Innovation: The Future of IP Organisations”) of the 2018 edition of Singapore’s nonpareil IPWeek @ SG. This Kat was not able to attend this year, but the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) has been kind enough to provide streamed tapes of various sessions. If other sessions challenge this Kat as much as this one did, he will be in for one exciting IP ride.

First, we offer a brief feline summary, which featured senior IP officials from various national IP offices as well as the president-elect of the International Trademarks Association (“INTA”), whose activities in interfacing with national and international IP offices are so wide in scope that they confer a “quasi-governmental” feel to the organization.

The initial speaker was Mr. Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director United States Patent and Trademark Office. Mr. Iancu took the audience back to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and Chicago Columbian Exposition, which in his words ushered in the modern world of technology. His focus was on the race over who would provide the lighting for the event? On the one hand, there was Thomas A. Edison and his invention of direct electrical current, on the other, the development of alternating current, by Nikola Tesla (the inventor, not the car), supported by George Westinghouse. As noted by Mr. Iancu, Westinghouse (and Tesla) won the bid.

For Mr. Iancu, what we learn from this story is that the patent system both encourages invention as well as patent design around, both of which are integral parts. But in today’s world, the outcome of the war over electrical currents and the role of patent protection in that contest, are not enough. Now, the USPTO is equally(?) focused on how to incentivize invention (read: innovation), although specifics offered were few, other than to emphasize the role of education.

Next up was Mr. Daren Tang, Chief Executive, Intellectual Property Office of Singapore [well, not exactly next up—the intervening speaker, Dr. Shen Changyu, Commissioner, National Intellectual Property Administration of the People’s Republic of China, delivered his address in Chinese and this Kat unfortunately had no access to a simultaneous translation].

Mr. Tang stated at the outset that IPOS is engaged “in more than mere registration”. Keeping with the overall theme of IPWeek @ SG, “Ideas to Assets: Connecting Markets Through IP”, Mr. Tang then talked at length about the various actors and stakeholders in the Singapore IP ecosystem, and how IPOS was constantly seeking to reach out to them against the backdrop of innovation and providing the right incentives. His emphasis was on the dynamic nature of the task: Singapore as a market and economy is “morphing”, and so it was incumbent on IPOS to continually evolve to serve these market needs.

Following Mr. Tang, the audience received the words of Mr. David Lossignol, President-Elect, International Trademark Association. The challenge for Mr. Lossignol was how to place this IP trade association within the framework of the subject of the session. He did so by emphasizing that INTA is more than an organization dedicated to trademarks (read: registration); it is a body dedicated to protecting and promoting brands.

As such, INTA was continuously going beyond the bounds of mere trademarks to include other legal rights (such as copyright and design), reflecting the wider scope of brands and branding. In this way, without going into detail, the message from Mr. Lossingnol is: innovation can contribute to brands, and brands can contribute to innovation. [This Kat has taken a less enthusiastic view than Mr. Lossingnol on this point, but the difference of view between us is for another time.]

Returning to Southeast Asia, the podium was then graced by the presence of Dr. Freddy Harris, the Director General of Intellectual Property, Ministry of Law and Human Rights of the Republic of Indonesia, and currently the Chairman of the ASEAN Working Group on Intellectual Property. Dr. Harris devoted notable attention to the developments that have been implemented by his national IP office to improve the quality of “customer engagement”, presumably with the country’s IP registry. He also made the intriguing point of stressing how a country at its stage of development, such as Indonesia, should pay special attention to what he termed “simple innovation”, leaving “complex innovation” for such places as the U.S.

The final speaker was Madame Naoko Munakata, Commissioner, Japan Patent Office. Madame Munakata chose to emphasize the activities in which the JPO was engaged in attempting reach out more to the increasing entrepreneurial interest being shown by the nation’s youth. In this vein, the fast-tracking of patents in certain areas can be of help, as well of being of more assistance to the country’s SME’s. More broadly, the JPO was paying close attention to Japan’s innovation cycle, with the focus on the needs of its users.

This Kat, in reflecting on these various presentations, was struck by the diversity of approach, nuanced as they were, about how each of them is trying to find its role beyond traditional prosecution.

The two large, long-standing IP offices, namely the U.S. and Japan, seem still to be seeking to find their respective paths in achieving this expanded goal. Mr. Iancu choose to focus on the historical example of the electric current war, presenting the dynamics of this technical competition in terms of the role of the patent system. Madame Munakata, on the other hand, in measured terms, downplayed the “registration” function of the JPO, focusing on specific steps that the JPO is taking steps to better reach out to users.

Dr. Harris was, in some sense, clearer on how his national IP registry views its current task. Getting the registration function right was still primary. Where innovation is concerned, he was realistic about what can be expected: innovation, “yes”, but of a certain scope.

Which leaves us with Mr. Tang’s enthusiastic description of how his national IP office is reaching out to multiple stake holders and actors in the promotion of innovation and the continued growth and development of the Singapore market (in his words, “to Singapore; from Singapore”).

There are two challenging questions that emerge from from Mr. Tang's words. First, is the Singapore model something other national IP offices should be aspiring to? And even if the answer is, in principal, “yes”, are the dynamics of Singapore so tied to its unique setting—size, commercial openness, strategic location, governmental efficiency, educational system and development of its human capital, that any such aspiration will need to be tempered by these realities?

Maybe the 2019 version of IPWeek @ SG will delve more deeply into these questions.

By Neil Wilkof

Photo on lower right by chensiyuan and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
IP Offices still searching for (the holy grail) of innovation and incentives: the view from IPWeek @ SG IP Offices still searching for (the holy grail) of innovation and incentives: the view from IPWeek @ SG Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, September 24, 2018 Rating: 5

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