Letter from IPReg: our important mission

4th Jan 2022

Lord Chris Smith issues a timely reminder of why IP is vital to our post-COVID recovery

We are now, we all fervently hope, emerging from the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic life isn’t exactly back to normal, but it is heading in the right direction.

A combination of COVID and Brexit has ravaged our economy and continues to do so. Supply chain crises, staffing shortages in many sectors, export difficulties: we aren’t in terribly good shape.

We do, however, have to try and make the best we can of where we find ourselves. Bewailing how we got here (which I frequently do) isn’t particularly helpful. 

The hope, though, has to be that it is intellectual property that will provide the greatest help towards our recovery. It isn’t too far-fetched to say that it’s patents and trade marks that will make the greatest difference to our economic future in the long run.

It’s innovation, and the legal framework that underpins it, that will be the most important ingredient of that future.

And in this respect it has been heartening to hear that trade mark and patent activity – and the demand for service from attorneys in both fields – has remained reasonably vigorous over the past 18 months, despite all the challenges of the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns.

It varies, of course, from sector to sector and firm to firm, but my worst initial fears about a falling-off in activity don’t seem – so far at least – to be being realised.

There was some mixed news for the world of IP in the latest Budget.

Looking at the announcements on research and development (R&D), there were some welcome bits and pieces. The extra £400m for Innovate UK was one of these.

The £800m announced – albeit spread over five years (it’s the oldest trick in the Treasury book, announcing five years’ worth of money as if it’s one) – for the new “Aria” (Advanced Research and Invention Agency) was encouraging.

This agency was apparently the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, and everything will crucially depend on the specifics of how it is set up, what its remit is, and how it operates. The devil, as always, will be in the detail.

The underlying picture isn’t quite as good, however. We were originally promised an overall total of £22bn a year in government support for R&D by 2024/5.

That target has now been pushed back to 2026/7. Chancellors (of all stripes) do tend to be rather good at committing to funding many years in advance and then subsequently adjusting the dates.

Government funding matters, of course, because a lot of publicly-funded research spins off into new ideas and products that get taken up by the private sector and then go on to need patent or trade mark protection.

But the central point remains very clear, and very important, and I do wish the Government had gripped it more firmly: if we’re going to build our way out of the economic malaise, it’s the things that contribute to IP, and the things that need to be protected by IP law, that will lead the way.

Let’s not forget the sheer importance of this mission, which we have all embarked upon.

 The Rt Hon the Lord Smith of Finsbury

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