The City of London is not necessarily where you would expect
to find "IP criminals" unless, that is, counterfeiters and
pirates are lurking in the global banks, insurance companies
and law firms that are the main occupiers of
London’s financial centre. From this Friday,
though, the City of London Police will be home to the
country’s first IP crime unit.
The reason is
that the City cops are the
national lead force for economic crime - such as insurance
fraud, corruption and credit card fraud - and they have just
given £2.5 million from the UK IP Office. This will
fund a team of 19 people in the new online IP crime unit, who
will deal with serious and organised crimes affecting digital
and physical goods (except for pharmaceuticals which are
handled by the MHRA).
At a briefing last week ahead of the launch, Superintendent
Bob Wishart acknowledged the magnitude of the task, noting that
the bad guys are often one or two steps ahead of the enforcers.
It sounds like the police will go after the organised
criminals, payment providers and advertisers rather than
stalking university corridors looking for some easy collars,
which must be a good thing. Awareness campaigns and education
also form part of their remit. And they will cooperate with
overseas agencies such as the US IPR Center and global
bodies such as Interpol.
Their most effective weapon may be the 2002
Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), probably the most draconian
IP-related legislation you’ve never heard of. Schedule
2 includes crimes under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act and the Trade Marks Act among the list of "lifestyle
offences" that can trigger actions under POCA, which means that
where there is evidence of financial benefit criminals can be
sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
Welcome as this initiative is, we have three main concerns
about whether it will be successful.
The first is funding. The money from the IPO covers just two
years. Beyond that, nothing is certain. In other areas, there
has been private sector money – the credit card fraud
unit for example is
supported by banks and payment providers. Would industry stump
up for the IP crime unit and if so how would funding be
organised? If not, would the IPO extend its funding
indefinitely even if that was not popular among some users
(there’s little obvious benefit for patent
Second, there is the
paradox that the people they are really going after are also
going to be best able to fight any police action. Smart
defendants will hire good lawyers, play games with jurisdiction
and delay legal proceedings. Just look at
Kim Doctom (left),
accused more than 18 months ago of running a massive
copyright piracy operation in New Zealand. The case against him
seems to be going nowhere; he has won
some key legal and PR battles; and is happily working on
new business ventures.
Third, as Dotcom and others have shown, defendants will also
try to capitalise on their victim status, particularly where
criminal sanctions and extradition are possibilities. That
raises the risk of public opinion swinging behind the
counterfeiters and against IP owners and enforcement
Both the police and rights owners need to tread carefully
when bringing criminal, rather than civil, actions. Otherwise
any benefits could we be outweighed by long-term damage.