Spring Conference 2024: Sessions roundup

22nd Mar 2024

We brought great minds from across our profession together to discuss and investigate the role of AI and technology in the future of intellectual property practice.

SC24 Spring Conference 2024 LawCare speaker Elizabeth Rimmer.jpg

Some 200 speakers, delegates and exhibitors from 25 countries joined forces for a range of interactive sessions at the historic Waldorf Hilton in central London.

Collaboration and new technology

Deputy CEO of the UK IPO Andy Bartlett opened our conference with a keynote address.

Andy shared recent trade mark filing data: “We are really pleased to say that we've seen really strong and increasing demand in the trade mark area with demand up about 3% this year from last and up 21% in the design space,” he told delegates.

Building collaboration was an important theme of his talk. He discussed the importance of collaboration with CITMA and the trade mark profession, as well as working together across jurisdictions between IP offices.

Andy said: “We'll continue to seek strong relationships with many national and regional IP offices so that we can share knowledge and expertise about the challenges we all face.

He told our conference that the UK IPO wants to make sure that as a national IP office it is helping to stimulate innovation, creativity, and economic activity.

“We're working towards signing a memorandum of understanding with the EUIPO to realise those goals,” he added.

On the theme of the conference, Andy remarked: “New technologies bring challenges to the IP system. It's a truism that I've touched on already, but the world doesn't stand still.

"Constant change means there will always be significant issues on the horizon with the potential to affect us all naturally. This brings challenges but also exciting opportunities for us to embrace.”

Can an AI own IP?

Appleyard Lees’ Robert Cummings took delegates through some emerging thoughts around AI in case law and what the future might hold.

However, first Robert took delegates back to 1555 and the first entity incorporated by royal charter. Looking at who can property, and more specifically intellectual property, is an important part of understanding whether an AI can own IP rights.

Fast-forwarding to the modern day, Robert discussed a few cases which help us to think about where we find ourselves in relation to AI. In particular, Robert drew attention to Thaler v Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks and Getty vs Stability AI, which focused on accusations of data scraping to train an AI.

Navigating tomorrow: Hybrid Intelligence and the Evolution of AI

Corsearch’s Colm MacSweeny brought us up to speed on the key facts and figures on AI.

He set out the difference between machine learning and generative AI:

  • Machine learning analyses data to improve performance on a specific task and make predictions based on learned relationships
  • Generative AI uses data analysis to create new, original content

Although in-house teams and law firms have shown early interest, we are a long way off from AI becoming universal. While there are many benefits to AI tools for law firms, particularly for improving efficiency, many still feel cynical.

Colm closed with some reassuring words from the Financial Times: “rather than AI replacing lawyers, we are more likely to see it turbo-charging their expertise”.

International case law update

From Africa, America and the Middle East, our panel of region experts dissected the key elements of important recent cases for us.

The US section of the talk, provided by Jess Collen, touched several times on the balance between the balance of US constitutional rights to freedom of speech with the right of brand owners to not have their trade marks copied.

Spireon, Inc v. Flex LTD explored the burden of proving third party non-use in the US, in this case the court found the burden to be on the plaintiff to show that third party marks are not in use.

In re Seminole Tribe of Florida focused on a building in the shape of a guitar. As it is a functional building, it could be seen as non-protectable. However, the court found that, as the building doesn’t need to be in this shame and functions as a badge of origin, it could be filed.

In a rare opposition case from Tanzania, Wilmar Resources attempted to register a trade mark for Tiffany in classes 3 and 5. Tiffany & Co claimed opposed this, claiming local familiarity, and potential for confusion.

The applicant agreed that Tiffany & Co owned marks outside of Tanzania and that there were name similarities. However, as Tiffany & Co was not registered in Tanzania and there were no product similarities, the registration was about to go ahead.

Muhammad Farrukh Irfan also set out key developments around technology, AI and their applications in Middle Eastern society. These include the 2031 AI Strategy, which will provide guidance on the training of Large  Language Models.

He also recounted the use of AI to prove the illegal importation of counterfeit goods through a freeport, demonstrating a use of AI which may become more common in the future.

A healthy digital life

Penny Aspinall of Jonathan’s Voice and Elizabeth Rimmer from LawCare shared some key tips for protecting work-life balance in an age where being accessible 24/7 is sometimes treated as the norm.

They set out what we can do individually, for example making sure that we take regular breaks and ensuring that we have firm boundaries around “work” and “non-work” times. This is especially key when working from home.

They also identified steps that can be taken by workplaces, including making sure that everyone feels confident with the technology that they are being asked to use and modelling best practice around out-of-hours emails.

Finally, they explored the risks to mental health from anxiety around cybercrime.

Trade marks and copyright in the metaverse

In his talk on how trade marks and copyright can be approaching in the context of the metaverse, Sheridans’ Tahir Basheer explored the potential IP issues that working in this space may uncover.

These include how IP rights can be enforced in a blockchain context, and challenges in relation to the training of large language models.

The emergence of the blockchain as a method for moving information presents issues for protecting rights owners, as the blockchain is designed to be entirely anonymous.

Additionally, the reliance of Large Language Models (LLMs) on data scraping to provide material which the model can learn from carries inherent risks to IP.

When protecting IP, it is now imperative to consider these risks early.

Tahir advised on how you can best protect your clients, offering the following tips:

  • Protect offerings in the real world, but also consider what protection could be used in the virtual world
  • Use LLMs carefully, and their output even more carefully. They are not free from risk.
  • Consider potential legal recourse and intermediaries

Gaming Industry

Sara Ashby and Michael Browne of Wiggin LLP set out the fundamentals of trade mark protection in the gaming industry.

In particular, they explored how “real world” people, places and things can be used and protected in games.

Real-world places, many of which are subject to trade marks, for example the Gherkin and the Warsaw National Stadium, have often appeared in games.

Most sculptures and building designs would be eligible for copyright protection, excluding them from uninvited recreation.

Real people can also be included in games, particularly celebrities and sports stars who are likely to have registered their names as trade marks. Using a real figure in a game could amount to passing off, based on false representation of licensing.

There are also some cases of original tattoo designs being found to have their copyright infringed by games, offering a further facet for creators to consider.

On the other hands, there is precedent for accusations of “de-branding”: not including a brand logo in a game where consumers might expect to see it.

In 2019, the EU court noted during a case concerning Dungeons and Dragons that “computer games are no longer the reserve of a specialist market”. Therefore, it should not be assumed that consumers have any particular knowledge regarding licensing.

Sara reminded us that design rights are an easy, effective route for protection. In particular, they are an ideal option for protecting character designs.

UK IPO transformation

UK IPO transformation lead Natasha Chick discussed the upcoming work to digitalise and modernise the application and management of trade marks and designs as part of the One IPO transformation.

Some of the key new features include a fully digital hearings and tribunal service. This will include:

  • A single route to resolve a dispute for all IP rights and company names
  • A quicker and more efficient mediation & opinion service
  • Better communication and awareness of a litigation case as it proceeds through the lifecycle
  • Audit trails of all dispute requests. 

The UK IPO will also be moving away from the use of specific forms, instead using the online platform to perform a specific action.

The service will make it possible to apply for IP and track applications online, with the option to collaborate with other users. It will also introduce further validation to make errors less likely.

An AI powered fuzzy search tool will also allow for broader and more relevant search results.

Natasha noted that feedback is crucial for the process of developing the new service. It is being built around the needs of its users, and therefore detailed feedback and the sharing of opinions is invaluable.

With topics from work-life balance to how AI will continue to help our profession evolve, the Spring Conference was an informative and exciting day for our delegates.

With prizes, networking and high-quality learning, the delegates left with inspiring insight to take back to their professional life.

We’d like to thank our sponsor, Corsearch, for their support of this event.