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Gowers warned over patent review

Old boys: 'Watch your step, mister'

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Patent attorneys rarely let their sang-froid slip. But this week the British Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) did just that when it warned the Treasury-commissioned Gowers Review of Intellectual Property to watch its step.

The review shook the patent institution's foundations with vague allegations that the system stifles innovation and promotes the establishment interests of big business.

Alisdair Poore, a patent attorney with Mills & Reeve, said CIPA members were concerned by the tone taken by the Gowers call for evidence, which appeared to assume that there might be something broken that needed fixing.

It appeared to take too much notice of sensational press reports about potty patents, software patents, or widespread contempt for "patent trolls" - those agents who horde patents like pawn shop scavengers, with the sole purpose of enforcing them.

Yet, say patent attorneys, potty patents are often sought but rarely awarded. Sensational reports are often about applications that have no hope in hell of being approved. The fuss about software patents was arguably much ado about nothing because its intellectual property is already provided for adequately. And patent trolls, like bottom feeders everywhere, have an ugly job, but it might be that somebody has to do it.

CIPA's Gowers submission, therefore, written by Poore, warned: "Think carefully before making proposals for change and do so only on the basis of reliable evidence."

The institute has even gone as far as publishing its entire submission, which should be available on its website sometime soon.

However, there are tweaks and tucks that attorneys think will make the British system an even shinier example of perfect regulation.

One thing CIPA would like to see change is the cost of registering a patent in Europe and enforcing it in the UK. The former is related to translations, which are an expensive burden on firms that make applications. The latter relates to the cost of maintaining a legislature that Poore described as the "Rolls Royce" model of enforcement.

The Patent Office started to address this, with the recent launch of an opinions service. But CIPA is proposing such a system could do more. For that it would need more resources. If the Treasury wants its review of patents to find some way to cut costs, or is too easily influenced with US corporate culture, perhaps we will get something more like the "Cadillac" model.

The fuss about patents, combined with a pressing need for international harmonisation has got everyone working on reviews like Gowers. The British had better make sure their own system's foundations are still solid after all the recent tremors if they want to contribute confidently to the European review of patents, and to compete squarely with the much derided North American system in international negotiations over harmonisation. ®

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