Opinion: UK economy needs an IP tsar

The Strategic Advisory Board for ­Intellectual Property (Sabip) is, rightly, one of the first quangos to be cut by the ­coalition.

Mark Owen
Mark Owen

Established two years ago as an independent adviser to the Government on IP ­policy, it had little visible effect on the ­Government’s understanding of IP and did little to improve IP policy. To IP ­solicitors and barristers it was largely ­irrelevant, other than that its lengthy outpourings were yet another stack of paper to get one’s head around in case they said anything new or provided important clues as to ­policy, which they rarely did. Its passing will be mourned only by the academic community who wrote its many reports.

But the rise and fall of Sabip is important because it shows how little any government understands or cares about IP, despite regular lip service to its role in the economy.

So what? Isn’t IP just a small, unimportant area of practice full of geeks, which many large firms stopped doing years ago? Yes and no, as there’s a bigger picture here.

The last government peppered its soundbites with its enthusiasm for the ’knowledge economy’, putting ’Creative Britain’ at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the recession and calling it key to our competitiveness in the global market. The coalition says very much the same. There’s much that can be done to make IP policy serve the interests of the economy and the country as a whole, with potentially significant gains in education, competitiveness and jobs. But our current process of ­government makes it unlikely that this nettle will ever be firmly grasped.

Government IP policy-making has been characterised by shameless buck-passing dressed up as democracy, in the form of endless and repetitive consultations year after year, with little apparently ever learnt or carried forward. If the knowledge ­economy and Creative Britain are to mean anything, then modern, cogent and flexible IP laws will have to be at the heart of it. To achieve that, the Government needs to start taking responsibility and make the effort to understand IP and how it should fit with other areas of policy, rather than asking bodies such as Sabip to tell it what to think.

IP should be near the centre of ­economic and education policy, with a dedicated and serious minister. Too often it has been infected by government short-termism, becoming a ministerial game of pass-the-parcel. Lord Triesman was the first IP minister, appointed with knowledge economy fanfare, who hoped to make radical changes but who the Government then moved before he had had a chance to effect much change. We then had high hopes of his successor David Lammy, as he was a qualified lawyer, but who was also in and out of the post quickly and will be ­remembered largely for drawing a curious analogy between file-sharing and taking free soap from hotel rooms. Baroness Wilcox now has the portfolio, though her interest in IP is as yet unknown to most of us. Worryingly perhaps, IP is no longer even seen as sufficiently important to form part of her ministerial title.

In contrast, the US – in so many ways the technological innovator we dream of being – now has an IP tsar, with a direct link to the president, as well as powerful heads of its copyright and patent/­trademark functions.

It may be that Vince Cable’s decision to axe Sabip presages a new more serious approach to IP policy. But the omens look bad. This is not the glamorous end of government, there are few cuts left to be made and little chance of grabbing the headlines. What is required is careful and incremental change, thought through by government departments with real expertise and ­interest in the area. But what hope of this is there if governments are always focused upon the short term and capable ministers upon further advancement? What we need is an IP tsar who really gets it.