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In the debate about IP enforcement, words matter

James Nurton

At the recent International IP Enforcement Summit in London the need for better communication about IP was raised by several speakers. It was a theme that also came up in a panel discussion I moderated at last week’s ECTA meeting in Alicante

IP SummitAt the latter, INTA chief executive Etienne Sanz de Acedo argued powerfully that IP professionals need to be better at engaging with non-professionals. At the Summit, speakers including OHIM President António Campinos stressed the need to “change the narrative” when communicating with young people.

Campinos stressed that this is about moving on the substance of the debate, and in particular highlighting the social and economic value of IP rights – for example, asking kids: how do you expect to earn money from your innovation/creativity if there is no protection? Often, IP is seen by young people as purely a negative instrument.

That’s fair enough. But I think it is also important to think about changing the language used.

By that I mean partly cutting out jargon. Lawyers, like other professionals, have their own terms which often exclude those not privileged to be part of the community. That can be alienating for many people.

But it also means we should think carefully before using terms such as “IP crime”, “IP theft” or even “enforcement” (which can sound needlessly aggressive to some ears). Such terms often crop up in policy debates, but it’s not helpful to equate all infringement with crime or theft, as Professor Stuart Green eloquently argued in the New York Times in 2012.

ECTA AlicanteIn this respect, I was particularly interested to hear BSA president and CEO Victoria Espinel say at the IP Summit that the BSA’s annual Global Piracy Study has been renamed Global Software Survey. It refers to “unlicensed” rather than “pirated” software, which is a welcome move – though I’m not sure whether it was influenced by concern over the inappropriateness of the word “piracy” or the fact that the “pirates” including the Pirate Party and the Pirate Bay have in recent years tried to claim it as a badge.

The challenge of course is finding language that is both accurate and accessible, something that has been highlighted recently in the debate about patent trolls/NPEs/PAEs/PHCs. (For the record, we prefer to use “patent troll” at least until a better term becomes current: that is partly because most people seem to understand what it means, and partly because we think any name that has to be abbreviated to three letters is inherently alienating.)

But it is a challenge that the IP community needs to take up. IP professionals often tell me that intellectual property is complex. As a non-professional, I agree that the nuances of the law and procedures have become arcane in many respects. But I would argue that the basic principles of IP protection are simple enough to be understood by most people.

The difficult bit is the communication. Let’s not make it harder than it already is.

(Pictured: crime author Val McDermid speaking at the IP Summit; the ECTA conference)


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