What is the point of IP Ministers?

This blog doesn’t do politics, unless the political issue is IP. But the news that Britain’s IP Minister, Sam Gyimah, has resigned over Brexit, gives IP Draughts a little leeway. Particularly as it follows the resignation of Jo Johnson a few weeks ago. Johnson was a transport minister when he resigned over Brexit, but was also Gyimah’s predecessor as IP Minister.

It so happens that both of them are “remainers” in the Brexit debate, as is Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who preceded Johnson as IP Minister.

During his time as chair of the IP Law Committee (IPLC) of the Law Society, IP Draughts attended meetings with each of them, during their respective tenures as IP Minister. They were all, in IP Draughts’ view, intelligent ministers on top of their briefs. He felt that Gyimah and Johnson, as elected politicians, probably devoted less time and energy to IP issues than Neville-Rolfe. Perhaps IP had less political “value” than other parts of their briefs such as universities.  As a small example, we persuaded the Baroness to attend our committee’s annual dinner, but not the other two. IP Draughts’ current view is that getting a good minister in the House of Lords is probably of more value to the IP community than an ambitious MP.

Between 2006 and 2015, as a mere member of the IPLC (which he is again now) he attended meetings with several other IP Ministers and was largely unimpressed with them. One of them left his post to become chairman of the Football Association. Another became chief executive of a cancer charity. None of them seemed to engage much with their responsibilities as IP Minister or to have any real insight into the subject.

IP Draughts has discussed this subject before, right at the start of Baroness Neville-Rolfe’s tenure. There have now been 9 IP Ministers in 11 years, presumably soon to be 10 when Gyimah is replaced. Do we need an IP Minister? Does having one help the IP community? And if the answer to these questions is yes, does having a new one every year or thereabouts diminish their value?

The IP Minister is a junior minister in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This department has had several changes of name in IP Draughts’ memory. It can trace its origins back to the Board of Trade in the nineteenth century (and earlier), and until recently the chief minister in the department also had the title of President of the Board of Trade. This title was recently transferred to the chief minister in the newly created Department of International Trade. But the latter department is a Brexit-related creation, which may well disappear or be merged with BEIS after Brexit is resolved.

The Board of Trade in the Nineteenth Century

Originally, the Board of Trade was a committee comprising both politicians and experts who advised the government on various trade-related matters, including intellectual property. IP Draughts wonders whether this would be a better system for managing the public policy aspects of the subjects such as IP, which are perhaps 90% technical and 10% political. Or if that isn’t thought appropriate, leave IP for the House of Lords (and a minister from its ranks) to manage, as members of the Lords tend to have more time to specialise in subjects that don’t raise big political issues.

IP Draughts has previously discussed this subject with senior representatives of the UK Intellectual Property Office. One of the IPO’s roles is to be the part of the civil service that advises ministers on IP policy issues. He understands that the IPO finds it helpful to have a named IP Minister to whom they report.

If the government were consistently to appoint a high-quality member of the Lords to be IP Minister, as with Baroness Neville-Rolfe, he would have no doubts about the value of having an IP Minister. But otherwise, he is not sure that we need one.






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Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal policy

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