What Can We Expect from the UK Intellectual Property Office in the Future?

Published: March 24, 2021

The United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has had its fair share of challenges in recent years. This includes managing the pandemic and preparing for Brexit and its aftermath for intellectual property (IP) users. The UKIPO is also working to establish a world-class IP regime to protect innovative ideas as part of the UK’s ambitious plan to become the world’s most innovative country.

The UKIPO recently decided to go one step further. During its “Trade Marks and Designs Forum” on March 4, the Office brought together some of its core users to discuss its future role and how best it can respond to the challenges that lie ahead. The forum gathered various UK-based and European IP associations, and INTA.

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) of the Future Think Tank Report recently released by INTA formed the basis for this discussion. The UKIPO is the first office to use the Report to trigger an exchange with its key stakeholders on its role for the future. The Report represents the collective input of current and former heads of IPOs from Australia, Canada, Chile, the European Patent Office, France, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States on what an IPO might look like in the next 10 to 20 years. The Office invited Hélène Nicora, INTA Chief Representative Officer–Europe, to present it to the forum.

While the Report addresses a series of challenges and potential roles an IPO might consider in the future, the UKIPO chose to reflect on its role in four sensitive areas: Demand for IP Rights, Informal IP Protection, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Human Resources. The meeting was held under Chatham House Rules and triggered a lively and constructive exchange between the Office and its core users.

Among the findings of the Report are that IPOs are moving beyond traditional tasks into diverse roles that include supporting innovation and broader public policies, providing education on IP, and understanding the IP marketplace. Intangible assets remain the future, and IPOs will continue to rely on new technologies while recruiting employees with a diverse skill set and collaborating with one another.

In advance of the forum, INTA CEO Etienne Sanz de Acedo commended the Office for its “proactive, forward-looking, and inclusive response” to challenges raised by the Office and its users.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this forum, which demonstrates the Office’s willingness to have an open dialogue with its core users on how best to respond to these challenges,” Mr. Sanz de Acedo said. “We are pleased to see that The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) of the Future is proving valuable to this discussion and planning. This is indeed exactly what this Report was intended for.”

Demand for IP Rights

Demand for IP rights in the UK increased in the last couple of years because of globalization, but also most recently since the Brexit referendum and the pandemic. However, demand remains volatile and hard to predict with accuracy.

The UKIPO’s projection methodology has become more sophisticated in the last 18 months thanks to business analyst and informatics teams, and a capacity to break down data according to the country of origin and type of businesses. The Office also started reflecting on the recommendation of The IPO of the Future to consider foreign policies on IP rights as another external factor that could distort demands, as well as the knock-off effects of demands on business operation and tribunal activities in forecasts.

Upon requests from user associations, the UKIPO agreed to consider sharing more detailed projections with its users. The Office deemed the exchange of data with other Offices important, although it confirmed that there is no forum so far where IPOs share best practices on methodology used to make projections. There was an exchange on the pros and cons of several modeling demands.

It is easier to anticipate peaks of demands in certain services and technologies for patents than it is for trademarks, the UKIPO explained. Some participants asked the Office to forecast opportunistic behaviors resulting from Brexit, including surges of bad-faith oppositions, in the last trimester of 2021.

Human Resources

In its human resources strategy—which it presented at the event—the UKIPO captures many of the recommendations of The IPO of the Future. The strategy includes: adjusting the necessary skills required and increasing temporary contracts considering projections of IP rights demand and new technologies; evaluating onboarding, assessment, and training processes so that they are more flexible and relevant; and increasing social mobility.

The UKIPO also has established a new and more inclusive recruitment policy with gender-neutral language. The policy discourages strict requirements and “desirable skills criteria” to allow applicant diversity and to focus on the candidate’s capacity to learn. Testing of applicants also differs according to the job applied for. The UKIPO focuses on equality, using alternative advertising media to access specific skills or specific communities, and organizing open events to promote work at the office.

Following this explanation of the recruitment policy, participants engaged in an exchange on the impact of work from home and the potential conflict between the recommendations of the Report to consider gig (short-term) hires, and the need to ensure examiners’ incorruptibility through long-term contracts.

The UKIPO combines fixed term appointments with onboarding, career development, and internal mobility programs. It will particularly take lessons from its special program for examiners having to work from home for the last six months. The Office also will reflect on how to improve its work-from-home policy to come up with a hybrid and flexible system for staff. The UKIPO agreed to share its experience with the IP profession on diversity and inclusion for recruitment and social mobility.

Private Rights Systems

The agenda also included a discussion of the impact of the rise of private rights systems. While The IPO of the Future illustrates some of the benefits that private rights systems can provide to companies, it raises many questions as to what they mean for IPOs and the overall IP system.

The UKIPO has witnessed an increase in demand for private rights systems, particularly from small businesses and Chinese companies not familiar with IP rights. These companies ask for a trademark in the UK to be on the brand registry of certain e-commerce platforms.

Discussion revolved around the potential evolution of such private rights systems and the challenges they represent for IPOs. This included extreme examples in China of platforms with automated filings of trademark applications for new vendors and its consequences on the Office’s response to applications surplus, or platforms which may skip in the future the requirement to have a registration before the IPO.

Another topic raised was platforms’ potential conflict between administering a registration system and enforcing trademarks online against counterfeiters. The UKIPO is proactively working with platforms to encourage online IP rights enforcement.

Artificial Intelligence

While recognizing the usefulness of AI in providing more accessible and quicker services for the Office, many participants stressed the need for the Office to be cautious to avoid any inadvertent consequences.

A debate took place around AI’s impact on examinations—whether AI will affect skills required, the role of an examiner, and even the need for an examiner. The UKIPO stressed that The IPO of the Future gave the Office ideas about new fields where AI could help, for example, in the automated patent drafting application process. The Office is already using machine learning tools to search for the most relevant application and for classification terms to be more aligned with the business that applicants are seeking to build. The UKIPO does not have image searching, but the Office is considering how this feature could be integrated in the examination process.

Commenting after the meeting, UKIPO Deputy CEO and Director of Operations David Holdsworth said, “Today’s pace of change and disruption pose unique challenges to regulators, innovators, inventors, IP rights owners, and businesses across the globe. The risk of changing and intervening too soon risks creating bad policy.”

“However,” he said, “the risk of failing to adapt and failing to become more agile and proactive also risks IP environments becoming unfit for purpose or irrelevant. This Report and the opportunity that INTA created for space to discuss, examine, and explore collaboratively has never been more important. We look forward to continuing discussions and working collaboratively to keep IP policy and operation as a key enabler to innovation.”

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of this article, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest. 

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