“The UK Intellectual Property Office [UK IPO] should draw up plans to improve accessibility of the IP system to smaller companies who will benefit from it. This should involve access to lower cost providers of integrated IP legal and commercial advice.” (Hargreaves Review 2011, recommendation number 9)
At the time of writing, we are still awaiting the UK Government’s response to the recommendations made in Professor Hargreaves’ report: Digital Opportunity – A review of intellectual property and growth. In the meantime, the UK IPO continues to provide assistance to individuals who choose to file patent applications themselves, without taking advice from a professional patent agent. This is consistent with the IPO’s Five Year Corporate Strategy, which includes the following statement:
“We will …further improve access to the IP system. This will include assessing whether we can do more to help unrepresented businesses and individuals make the right choices when applying for IP rights.”
Some (or perhaps most) UK patent attorneys view the IPO’s advice to self-filers with deep misgiving. The LinkedIn Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys discussion group (you need to be a member of the group to read its discussions) has recently been discussing this guidance from the IPO on using academic papers as the basis for a patent application. Several patent attorneys thought this advice was unhelpful, if not downright negligent. Some queried whether the IPO should be giving any advice to self-filers, other than to engage a patent attorney. There was a view that “dumbing-down” advice to the level of a consumer simply wasn’t possible in the area of patents, and that the IPO should not be attempting to make it easy for self-filers.
More generally, one patent attorney, Tom Hutchison, commented:
“Here’s the crux: it takes a trainee patent attorney, who is immersed 35+ hours per week in the ‘patent process’, on average, 4 years to pass the UK and European drafting exams. The failure and attrition rate is high and that’s because the exam is hard, and that’s because drafting is just plain difficult.”
This comment prompts IP Draughts to ask some dumb questions. Why is it so difficult? Could it be made any easier? And will Government accept the view that it is impossible to make it simpler, cheaper and more user-friendly for inventive consumers?
On the last of these questions, the Hargreaves recommendation quoted above suggests a different direction of travel. Governments are inherently suspicious of professionals arguing for the status quo, as solicitors know only too well. Might the examples of licensed conveyancers and professional will-writers, relatively new breeds of quasi-professionals who compete with solicitors, provide Government with a template that they feel could be extended to patent writing? Could we see the emergence of a new, paralegal-level adviser on patents who will provide a cheap, consumer-focussed service? Or will the IPO expand its help-desk services to the point where self-filers can find all the advice they want under one roof in Newport?
UK Governments have extensively reformed the market for legal services in recent years. In some areas, patent agents have benefitted from the reforms, eg through rights of audience in the courts. The most intrusive development for patent agents has probably been the formation of IPReg and all that goes with it. It remains to be seen whether Government will introduce major reforms to the market for patent services in response to the Hargreaves recommendations.