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UK's ho-hum copyright, patent shakeup revealed

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While the world's economic powerhouse China uses the muscle of the state to strengthen its intellectual property industries, Britain is apologetic and embarrassed about its own.

This was plainly evident in a dog and pony show this morning starring Business Secretary Vince Cable. The event was staged by officials at the much-criticised Intellectual Property Office, the IPO.

Cable was expected to unveil new copyright exceptions, but in the event the steak pie arrived without any meat in it: Cable hinted these copyright changes may be forthcoming in the New Year.

The biz secretary said patent procedures will be streamlined to allow inventors to register a patent in 90 days as opposed to the three or four years it usually takes the IPO to approve designs. But such matters will shortly fall into the domain of the European Patent Court, which allows a patent filed in one country to be recognised across the EU.

Critics fear this encourages patent trolls, who hoard intellectual property simply to sue anything that vaguely infringes the designs, at the expense of genuine innovators, for whom enforcement and costs of protecting their ideas remain formidable.

The other "news" Cable announced is, perplexingly, stuff that already happens: he touted "working with key partners, such as the City of London Police, to tackle intellectual property crime such as counterfeiting and online piracy". But they already do this by arresting suspected copyright infringers and closing down their online fundraising.

Cable also announced a nagware campaign, calling it "action to help consumers and young people understand the importance of respect for intellectual property and the harm counterfeiting or illegal downloading can do", even though previous efforts along those lines have so far pleased no one. Why? Nagging by itself is pointless: people only stop doing something if there's a cost - and no penalties are forthcoming.

Whitehall officials would rather commit Mishima-style suicide than add penalties to copyright abuse. The creative industries, meanwhile, are unhappy because they already do education (the really quite useful Content Map site, for example) as well as nagging, and no funding was promised. Despite this, the rest of us can look forward to being nagged in theme parks - which according to the FT is where the message will be spread.

Yes, you read that correctly: theme parks. As if Alton Towers isn't scary enough already.

The British Establishment's view of intellectual property was demonstrated by the IPO's choice of keynote speaker: the bureaucrats found a ferocious critic of intellectual property enforcement called Professor Birgitte Andersen, who calls on a career in quangos, such as the Research Councils, and academia. Andersen provided the buzzwords, such as "open innovation", beloved by the new rentier class.

The government's disdain for intellectual property was also apparent in the invitation list, which was leaked to us. Far more academics and quangocrats were invited than business representatives. Growth is a second-order abstraction here - something to talk about rather than do. Copyright minister Lord Marland was eventually spotted at the event, seated at the back. But who can blame him?

Whitehall officials pride themselves that intellectual property, rather like climate change, is a subject in which Britain is "leading the world", when in reality the world is heading off down a different track. Other countries are either indifferent to or rather grateful for the UK's passion for economic self-harm. ®

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