Rather out of the blue, Business Secretary Vince Cable has made a series of proposals affecting patents, copyright and trade marks:
Business Secretary Vince Cable, today set out new plans to make sure UK creativity and innovation supports growth. Speaking at The Big Innovation Centre, Dr Cable launched a range of measures that will improve services to business, strengthen enforcement, and help consumers get the most out of creative products and services.
The plans, which will involve a step change in the way the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) delivers services, include:
launching a superfast patent processing service to deliver patents in just 90 days and a faster trade marks examination service which will deliver a full examination report in five days, instead of 10;
a campaign to educate smaller businesses about getting the best value from their creativity and innovation;
action to help consumers and young people understand the importance of respect for IP and the harm counterfeiting or illegal downloading can do; and
working with key partners, such as the City of London Police, to tackle IP crime such as counterfeiting and online piracy.
Let's take a look at these in turn.
"Superfast patent processing service" is implicitly predicated on the idea that pushing out patents faster is somehow good for everyone. But the equation "number of patents" = "degree of innovation" is not just unsubstantiated, but disproven by the tangled mess of patent thickets that are throttling the life out of the smartphone market.
It's not hard to see why increasing the number of patents actually hinders innovation. By definition, a patent is a government-backed monopoly to exclude others from using inventions. The more patents, the greater the exclusion, and the greater the obstacles to innovation. In particular, they are barriers to entry for startups, which will not have or be able to afford extensive legal resources to check for patents that may be infringed on by their products – or to pay licences to use them.
Open source offers another potent counterexample – a world without patents where building on the work of others is not just allowed, but encouraged. It has led to an unprecedented burst of innovation, particularly in the online world (although increasingly-crazy US patents threaten that innovation, which has led to a number of efforts to reform patent law there and reduce the flood of poor-quality patents issued.)
This also feeds into Mr Cable's second point: helping smaller businesses get the "best value" from their creativity and innovation. Simply trying to prevent others from building on that innovation is exactly wrong: the secret is to encourage others to do precisely that so as to reinforce the centrality of the innovation. Being the hub of a large, open ecosystem is far more valuable than being most of a closed one – just look at Google's Android, or any open source project that offers commercial versions.
The next idea, "to help consumers and young people understand the importance of respect for IP and the harm counterfeiting or illegal downloading can do" is just plain daft. For a start, this kind of crude propaganda is patronising and objectionable in general – the idea that people are so stupid they have to be told what to think. It has also led in the past to some astonishingly pernicious attempts to brainwash young children that sharing is bad, and that selfishness is good – hardly what society needs.
Moreover, this is propaganda designed to prop up what is already a government-backed monopoly – copyright in this case. Since when is spending taxpayers' money bolstering monopolies that are imposed on them a good idea? It's particularly ridiculous when the general justification for these measures is to boost creativity and innovation: propping up old business models is exactly the wrong way to do this.
Similarly, tasking the City of London Police with tackling online piracy is a waste of valuable resources that could be dealing with all those pervasive terrorism threats we supposedly live under. As I've said time and again, there is a growing body of evidence that online sharing boosts sales, so trying to stamp it out may actually reduce profits for companies. Along the way, there are also bound to be heavy-handed arrests of people simply swapping files with friends, and other miscarriages of justice (Richard O'Dwyer, anyone?)
It's really regrettable to see the Business Secretary so wedded to the past with these measures. Instead, he should be concentrating on promoting real – not simply alleged – innovation in the digital sphere that takes advantages of the huge new opportunities available there. The current proposals are pretty much guaranteed to be a failure in this regard, and show just how cut off Mr Cable is from 21st century reality.