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IPO: Should stand for Intellectual Property Obliteration

Sir Humphrey's onslaught on creators' rights

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Comment Thanks to Yes, Minister, the idea of bureaucrats running the country is embedded in the nation's imagination. Governments change and ministers come and go with barely enough time to master the jargon. Public policy is quietly made in private, and while the media focuses on the elected government, the real one, our bureaucracy, quietly goes about its business. How true is this, really?

This summer The Spectator's political editor quoted a Cabinet minister as saying that, by his estimation, only four out of 22 colleagues lead their departments, the other 18 "just represent the views of their officials to Cabinet and the Prime Minister". They're messenger boys and girls.

That's arguably true at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where the Foreign Secretary is little more than an after-dinner speaker with a fabulous travel allowance. There's evidence of it at the Home Office: this Labour minister belatedly discovered he was being misled. And it's true at one other important outpost, the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) as we shall see below.

The IPO is the old Patent Office, and its brief is to support British business. This is a particularly important sector since we don't build ships or bash steel anymore. Businesses based on the "intangibles" of IP are the cornerstone of economic growth – and the only part of the economy that's growing. Speaking English helps here, as does the British genius for improvisation and inventiveness. Design, computer software, games, music and TV are all areas in which the UK punches above its weight, and where property rights need to be asserted.

The problem is, the IPO has its own agendas. The constant turnover of ministers who can barely grasp their brief has left the Sir Humphreys of the IPO effectively in charge of policy, and the IPO reflects all the bien pensant dinner-party prejudices about creators' rights. The organisation appears to have decided that its mission to collectivise copyright, and it works unrelentingly towards this goal - although it's not one ministers or industry share.

On most IP topics hand-picked academics (often funded by government), digital activists and large, powerful internet companies (who fund the activists, and who benefit commercially from using other people's content without paying for it) all speak with one voice. They regard IP holders as grubby and parochial and backwards looking, and long for new technology and networks to sweep away the Ancien Regime, like an act of nature, leaving behind goodness and fairness.

The idea of the inventor or creator as the owner of important property rights is not one that's respected; the individual may as well not exist, and what rights they wish to assert must be collectivised "for the greater good". When pirates hoist the Skull and Crossbones, they imagine they're striking a pose as rebellious outsiders; they don't realise they are actually the Establishment. Their flag has flown over the IPO for many years. The slogan may as well be "Intellectual Property Is Theft".

Hargreaves: This evidence isn't really evidence

Six months ago Downing Street ordered a review into IP, which became known as the "Google Review" after a remark by Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron had been told Google may never have launched in the UK because of its intellectual property laws, and he wanted somebody to investigate.

Though it was nominally headed by journalist-turned-academic Ian Hargreaves, civil servants from the IPO were answering to MPs on the business select committee on Tuesday. It was a fascinating session.

The arguments kicked off with complaints from the officials that the supporting evidence justifying the new Digital Economy Act - which strengthens IP rights - was no good. Adrian Brazier of the Ministry of Fun (aka the DMCS) gave a long whinge to this effect and the IPO's Ed Quilty chipped in: the civil servants "couldn't look under the bonnet".

From left to right: Adrian Brazier, Ed Quilty, Baroness Judith Wilcox, John Alty

But the MPs had concerns too. They were scathing about the evidence the IPO had offered to justify the conclusions of the Google Hargreaves review, which argues for collectivisation.

The grilling found the civil servants – and biz department minister Baroness Wilcox – on the defensive. Instead of a chippy session extolling the promise of IP reform, they were on the back foot.

This isn't surprising as the IPO's economic "evidence" in support of the Hargreaves conclusions was cobbled together in a hurry, with fantastically implausible figures plucked out of the air. If you or I had produced something as amateurish as this for a company strategy document, we'd be picking up our P45s on Monday. But you don't get sacked at the IPO - you live to cobble another day.

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