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We a need a serious IP minister – but fat chance of that

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It’s time for a new IP minister, which means it's time to learn about an MP we’ve never heard of before

Much like Christmas, it seems to come around quicker each time and the preparations and adverts seem to start earlier. That’s right, I’m talking about the choosing of the UK’s new prime minister.

For those of you not in the UK (or those who are but have switched off from the whole spectacle) the latest to get a bash at the top job is Liz Truss.

Expect to see a flurry of high-profile cabinet positions filled in the coming days, probably by names you – if you’re UK based – will have become more than accustomed to hearing over the past few months.

It will be those members of parliament (MPs) who trotted out on television and radio to publicly back the hopeful future leader, of course.

Eventually – and this is something that’s also become a bit of a tradition among intellectual property practitioners – there’ll be the appointment of a new minister in charge of IP.

When that person is finally chosen, the first thing out of IP peoples’ mouths will be: “Who on earth is that?”

Guess who?

This event usually comes several days after the main show and when everyone is weary and tired. Most people don’t even notice it – the equivalent of the 12th night, perhaps?

For me, the announcement is usually followed by a quick Google search. In fact, one of the most striking things about the appointment of IP minister is its ability to make me realise that there are many hundreds of MPs who I, and many others, have never heard of.

Don’t get me wrong, not having heard of an MP is not necessarily a bad thing. You could argue that the more famous (or infamous) MPs are more focussed on getting their name out there than any serious policy work, while the unknowns are busy doing the best job they can.

Sadly, I don’t think the latter option is the case as far as IP goes.

The revolving door of the IP minister role suggests that the post is merely used as a stepping-stone for MPs with eyes on a bigger prize. Sadly, those who take the role are rarely more than seat fillers.

The new minister, whenever he or she is appointed, will be the 12th in 12 years. Seven of those have come since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Two have done the job twice in that time: Chris Skidmore and Jo Johnson, the younger brother of former PM Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson. The younger Johnson’s first stint ended shortly before his brother became PM. The second stint lasted only a month or so.

Perhaps Boris, as some call him, got desperate when it came to IP. “Jo bruv, do me a favour and go back to IP for a bit. I promise I’ll think of something for you eventually.”

Whatever the discussions, serious or comical, 12 ministers in 12 years is hardly an indication of a strong and stable commitment to IP.

It’s not as though there is nothing going on either.

In the past few months, Managing IP has reported on how UK universities might struggle to commercialise their IP under a new national security law, the government considering proposals for a new SEP framework, and the UK publishing its response to a consultation on design rights.

The UK has signalled it wants to become a leading voice on artificial intelligence and its relationship to IP.

There’s also the small matter of exhaustion of IP rights, which has been parked for now, but will have to rear its ugly head again soon. That will have serious ramifications for brand owners, no matter which path the government eventually chooses.

Is it too much to ask to have someone in place who will clearly and openly take these issues by the horns?

I’d love to think that will happen – but we know what’s coming because we’ve seen it before.

The new minister may turn up at the odd IP conference and give a quick early morning speech praising the UK’s innovation prowess.

They will say how important IP is to the economy and how we must respect it, while a bleary-eyed and bored audience, some of whom may not have had time for their morning coffee, desperately hope for some actual action.

Then the minister will scuttle off, speechwriter in tow, not to be heard or seen from again until the next event.

Watered down

Sadly, the government as a whole seems equally apathetic.

As my colleague pointed out in September last year, even the IP minister job title has been watered down over the years.

Formerly, the brief was included in the scope of the minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation.

However, since 2020, the science, research and innovation element (which includes IP) has been demoted further. The holder of office is now a parliamentary under-secretary of state – a more junior position, in ministerial terms.

Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, and you’d be right. There are more pressing concerns than IP awaiting Truss and her cabinet.

Rising energy bills, war in Ukraine, the NHS, and calls for another Scottish independence referendum are just a few.

But for the IP industry, the thought of preparing for another few years of being nothing more than an afterthought in Westminster is more than a little depressing.

To tackle all this, maybe we can have a minister (whoever it might be) who will stick around for long enough to get a proper handle on the issues and help the UK become a serious voice on IP.

An IP minister might not be for life, but they should at least stick around until Christmas.

Fat chance of that though.

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Dev Narasimhan is a patent portfolio manager at CoMotion at University of Washington in the US
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Charles Roger is a senior contract and licensing manager at STMicroelectronics in France
Hyeran You is a senior legal counsel at Samsung Electronics in South Korea
Thibault Saurat is a group patent manager at Ontex in Belgium
Armin Schwitulla is a senior litigation counsel at Nokia in Germany
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