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Intellectual Property

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are undertaking to ensure that small businesses can protect their intellectual property and reduce the legal costs of enforcing it, in the light of World Intellectual Property Day.

My Lords, this Government are committed to ensuring that all intellectual property rights are respected and appropriately enforced. This requires the right legal framework at home and abroad, effective enforcement action when needed and education for all as to the importance of respecting IP rights. We are undertaking a range of measures under all three of these headings, with mediation, IP insurance and fee reductions all targeted at reducing costs for SMEs.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very supportive Answer. However, in particular, SMEs are concerned about the recent Trunki judgment, which means that registered design rights have even less protection than was previously thought. Also, they are very concerned about the small claims track, which limits them to £10,000 of damages when, in fact, many small businesses suffer much more than that and wish to have an effective cost of enforcement. What kind of assurance can the Minister give small businesses today, on World Intellectual Property Day?

On World Intellectual Property Day, I can say how important we consider design rights and other rights for small businesses. On Trunki, officials are reviewing the guidance available and we are reducing the fees. Instead of paying £1,620 for 40 designs, you will have to pay only £130 for electronic filing. This will help those who have been hit by the Trunki judgment. On the issue of the court, I am discussing with the Chancellor of the High Court whether we can give it extra resource because it is so valuable and so admired internationally.

My Lords, the greatest theft of and threat to IP is cyberattack. The people who do this on an industrial scale are the Chinese. Have any actions been taken to stop that mass theft of IP across all our business areas?

The noble Lord raises a very good question. I went to China about 18 months ago and we did talk to the Chinese in quite a straight way about this point. I am off there again in August and I will try again. The main reason they are changing is that they can see that going up the value chain is important for the Chinese economy—so that gives us some common ground on intellectual property rights. But of course the cyber issue remains a very worrying one.

My Lords, perhaps I could widen the question a little. Does the Minister agree that the cost of applying for patent application and the delay in being granted a patent is a significant limitation for small businesses? Does she not also agree that there are things that the Government could do in due course? First, they could introduce enforced mediation in disputes with larger organisations, and, secondly, they could look at whether the unfair competition law could be extended on these issues.

That is a lot of questions. When the Unified Patent Court comes in, it will be better for small businesses. We have looked carefully at the charges for them. But I am not convinced about bringing in statutory mediation. There is a government mediation service run by the Intellectual Property Office—which I value—which offers a low-cost way of resolving disputes. I am not convinced that there is a case to go further, although I am always happy to discuss it.

My Lords, can the Minister say anything to encourage authors, musicians and owners of such intellectual property rights who have those rights stolen from them every day, not least through the so-called social media, which seems to behave in a very unsocial manner?

My noble friend is right to support our creative industries—our musicians, our writers—and this is at the heart of our policy on intellectual property. One of the reasons we set up PIPCU was to put more focus into this area. Crime has moved online and we have to change the way in which we help our writers. But our attitude in Britain is right and strong.

My Lords, the problem is more complex, is it not? Noble Lords will be aware that the IP crime statistics are deficient in the sense that they do not collect separately details of cybercrime. We therefore have no real baseline against which we might operate. The ONS piloted a new scheme last year which revealed that there were about 5.1 million instances of fraud and 2.5 million instances of computer misuse per year. So there is a gap here and I wonder whether the Minister could respond on that. Secondly, could she say a little more on penalties, where the City of London Police have also identified a gap? IP offences attract a maximum 10-year prison sentence but online copyright infringement—one of the points just made by the noble Lord—attracts a maximum of only two years. That seems a bit of a discrepancy.

The noble Lord is right about online crime. Last week we announced that we will be raising the penalty from two years to 10 years when legislative time can be made available. On figures, we have an IP crime group which brings together all the different people involved, from the top of the police to local trading standards. Getting better data is one of the frustrations. We are trying but it is not perfect.

My Lords, on World Intellectual Property Day, does my noble friend agree that, while it is important to protect intellectual property, sometimes the defence of intellectual property goes too far and stifles innovation, particularly in parts of the United States system? Speaking as an author, I am not entirely sure why my grandchildren should get royalties from my books just to satisfy the Walt Disney Corporation.

I have no wish to adopt the US system here. We are working hard to improve the arrangements on a worldwide basis. Copyright is 70 years —that has been agreed internationally. People have different views as to whether that is right or wrong but it helps our creative sector enormously.

My Lords, with no disrespect to small businesses which suffer from losing intellectual property rights, does the Minister agree that it is even more worrying and tragic when employees lose their pension rights because of the actions of a magnate—an entrepreneur—with no concern for the rights of their workers, such as Sir Philip Green?

Obviously, I share the noble Lord’s concern about pension rights. There was a lively debate in the other place on this issue yesterday which merits reading.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what will happen to the European trademark and patent arrangements should the result of the referendum lead to Britain’s exit from the European Union?

I do not think that I am going to speculate on that issue. We may well remain, but the point about intellectual property law is that, especially now that content is online, it knows no boundaries. That provides a huge dynamic for international action.