Skip to main content

Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill [Lords]

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2017

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 1

Review of the impact of exiting the European Union on provisions within this Act

“( ) Within 12 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report on the impact of the Government’s plans for exiting the European Union on the provisions within this Act, and must lay a copy of the report before Parliament.”—(Bill Esterson.)

This is a probing new clause to assess the impact of exiting the European Union on the provisions within this Act.

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Intellectual property makes a significant contribution to the UK economy each year. In 2014, UK firms invested an estimated £133 billion in knowledge assets, compared with £121 billion in tangible assets. As the Intellectual Property Office notes, UK investment in intangible assets that are protected by intellectual property rose from £47 billion in 2000 to £70 billion in 2014, and is estimated to represent 4.2% of total GDP. What is more, the UK system of regulating intellectual property is considered to be one of the best: it was rated No. 3 by business in the 2016 Taylor Wessing global IP index in respect of obtaining, exploiting and enforcing the main types of intellectual property rights. It is clear that intellectual property is of great importance to the UK economy, so the impact of leaving the European Union on IP and the provisions in the Bill is vital to the economy. It is of great interest to businesses, which value certainty, and it is crucial to potential investors in businesses in the United Kingdom.

The Bill will apply to patents, trademarks and designs. The Minister stated in Committee, and in a written answer on 20 October last year, that the European Patent Office was established by international treaty and that our participation in its work will be unaffected by our leaving the EU. The suggestion is that patents will be relatively untouched by Brexit; it is to be hoped that the Minister’s confidence is not misplaced. Several IP rights that derive from EU regulations will no longer apply to the UK, and the impact of Brexit is far from clear at this stage. As the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys recently commented:

“The continued validity of these rights in the UK is uncertain. Transitional agreements may be negotiated to allow time for rights holders to convert these into national rights or to file separate national rights... The government has remained silent on whether or not it intends to implement the new Trade Mark Directive into UK domestic law.”

The Minister signalled in Committee the Government’s intention to ratify the unified patent court agreement by the end of April. The court will deal with disputes relating to European patents and help the business that the Bill seeks to assist by removing the threat of unjustified litigation—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) in Committee. Will we still be members of the court after we leave the EU? The court is part of the effort to reduce costs across jurisdictions and make it easier to do business. As we prepare to leave the EU, the last thing we need is additional costs on businesses, so clarity is needed about our membership of the court. The Minister said in Committee that decisions had not yet been taken, so will he provide an update and confirm that he understands just how important it is that we minimise costs across jurisdictions, including those relating to intellectual property rights? What is his view on our potential membership of the patent court after we leave the EU?

The CIPA said:

“For the UK to continue participating after Brexit, there would need to be a new international agreement with the participating Member States and the UK to provide compatibility with EU law... If the UK does not remain a member of the UPC…there will be a need for further transitional provisions to protect any rights acquired or cases in progress at the time the UK leaves. It is still unclear whether UK European Patent Attorneys will be able to represent parties in the different Divisions of the UPC after Brexit.”

It went on to say:

“CIPA has a strong preference for the UK to participate in the UP and UPC system, if a solid legal basis for this can be agreed.”

Given the UK’s leading position in patents and patent law, it makes sense to do all we can to maintain our position and to ensure that confidence in our position remains as high as possible. It is important that we avoid taking a step backwards on IP law and losing the potential benefits that the development of single European patent protection will bring. The economic and competitive advantages of such protection are clear enough. The alternative of having a separate UK system, with the likely need for rights holders to apply for UK and EU protection separately, will mean additional burdens for UK businesses and for our economy, compared with the UK remaining a central part of the European-wide patent system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said in Committee, it is vital that the Minister takes all steps to ensure that patent law and IP law more generally do not take a retrograde step following Brexit. IP is how innovation is rewarded; it is fundamental to ensure our ability to deliver a high-pay economy and prosperity, and to Britain’s promise that the next generation is better off than the previous one. Since 2010, we have seen living standards fall while the economy as a whole has grown. The people of this country cannot afford to miss opportunities, including this one. The alternative of a race to the bottom, a low-wage economy and our competing as some kind of tax dodger’s paradise off the coast of continental Europe will not deliver better living standards.

Intellectual property is one of many ways in which we must build on our success as a country and not allow decline. How intellectual property rights are protected, and how they are seen to be protected during the Brexit negotiations, will be crucial to delivering and enhancing business and investor confidence and to getting the best possible outcome from the negotiations. The Prime Minister may not wish to give a running commentary, but she and her Ministers need to reassure businesses, their staff and the whole country that everything is being done to secure our future. That is why I tabled the new clause to call for the Government to review the impact of Brexit on the IP provisions in the Bill.

A report after a year would not only help to bring sovereignty back to Parliament—something we heard a great deal about during the referendum debates—but help UK businesses and foreign investors to understand the post-Brexit intellectual property world with respect to the provisions in the Bill. The protections being harmonised in the Bill are important to help to protect our businesses, ensure a fair market and encourage entrepreneurs and inventors, and especially to ensure opportunity for smaller businesses. Nevertheless, those businesses, entrepreneurs and inventors all want to know, as far as possible, what the arrangements and relationships with the EU will be like post-Brexit.

The law firm Charles Russell Speechlys says:

“Discussions are taking place regarding the post-Brexit options for IP. National IP rights are unlikely to be affected post-Brexit. Pan-European IP rights will be affected. Trade marks and designs are likely to be the IP rights most affected but it will impact on other IP rights as well.

On leaving the EU, the UK will no longer automatically be covered by EU trade marks. An orderly transitional period is expected with the potential to split existing EUTMs into UK national and EUTMs post-Brexit (subject to negotiation and relevant supporting legislation). Trade mark owners will need to reinstate lapsed UK marks which have been subsumed into EUTMs by seniority but it is not yet clear how that will work.”

The firm goes on to say:

“New EUTM filings post-Brexit will not extend to the UK (they will be limited to the EU). Trade mark owners will need to seek national protection in the UK for their trade marks. Application through the Madrid Protocol will still be available for IRs designating the UK.

The UK court system will no longer have EU trade mark courts post-Brexit. EUTM holders will not be able to enforce them in the UK and obtain pan-EU injunctions under the EUTM Regulation. The effect on pan-EU injunctions already granted is unknown. Brexit will also impact on the general jurisdiction of the UK Courts and enforcement of their judgments. Infringement proceedings may need to be brought separately in the UK and EU.

UK trade mark laws may develop independently over time and diverge from EU trade mark laws. CJEU decisions will not be binding but are likely to be persuasive.”

The firm ends by saying:

“There will be no obligation to implement the new Trade Marks Directive (in line with the already in force new CTMR”—

Community trade mark regulation—

“if Brexit takes place before January 2019.”

The uncertainty that is set out by that legal opinion shows the need for proper analysis and for confidence to be built in during negotiations, rather than after we have left the EU. Clearly, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty. We are unlikely to be able to remain in the new European unified patent court after Brexit. The Government have not said whether we will implement the trademarks directive.

To provide the certainty that business needs, perhaps the Minister could use this opportunity to confirm which IP rights not currently on the UK statute books will be enshrined in UK law once we leave the EU. Does he understand from the detailed analysis that I read out from Charles Russell Speechlys just how much of a concern this is, just how complex it is, and just why businesses want and need that certainty for the good of themselves and the wider economy?

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to issue a report on the impact of the Government’s plans for exiting the European Union on the provisions in the Bill within 12 months of it coming into force.

The Bill does not take forward any EU obligations. The IP unjustified threats provisions do not derive from EU law. They are “home grown” provisions that were first enacted for patents back in the 19th century. The important protections provided by the Bill will not in themselves be changed by Brexit. Businesses pushed for clarity and certainty about how they can contact others over IP disputes, and the Bill will deliver that. Our leaving the EU does not alter that. Of course some IP rights are EU-wide, and the Bill will apply properly to those rights. The threats regime will be consistent across all relevant rights that have effect in the UK.

Furthermore, the Bill will ensure that our UK threats regime works appropriately with the proposed unitary patent and unified patent court when they come into effect. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) asked about the UPC following our exit from the EU. The options for the UK’s intellectual property regime after our exit, including our relationship with the unified patent court, will be the subject of negotiation, and it would be wrong to set out unilateral positions in advance. None the less, our efforts will be focused on seeking the best deal possible in negotiations with our European partners, and we want that deal to reflect the kind of mature co-operative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy.

As long as we are members of the EU, the UK will continue to play a full and active role, and making sure the IP regime continues to function properly for EU-wide rights is an example. The UK’s involvement in the EU IP framework after exit is not a matter for the Bill; it will be part of the EU exit negotiations, which of course have not yet begun. It is likely that those negotiations will still be in progress at the point at which the new clause would require us to report. Publishing the suggested report would be unnecessary and could well undermine our ability to negotiate the best deal for Britain in this area.

The hon. Gentleman asked about EU-wide IP rights on Brexit. Of course we are already talking to businesses and to other stakeholders about this important issue. There will be time to address it fully and properly during exit negotiations. Naturally, we will want to see the best outcome and one that supports our innovative businesses. He asked also about EU trade marks and designs. We recognise that users will want clarity over the long-term coverage of those rights. We acknowledge the importance of involving users in the consideration of these issues, and we are working with stakeholders at the moment to gather views on how to address their concerns.

The hon. Gentleman asked on a number of occasions about the EU trademark reform package and the directive. On balance, we think that the reform package is a good one, with modernisations that will make the overall system easier and cheaper for businesses to use.

We are committed to getting the right deal for the UK and we will work with Parliament to ensure a smooth and successful exit. The new clause would not help us in any of this work; it is unnecessary and potentially harmful to the UK’s interests. For that reason, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause.

I am glad that the Minister said that he was already having discussions with businesses; that is incredibly important. I urge him to make it clear very publicly, sooner rather than later, exactly what the nature of those discussions are. Businesses are already exceedingly worried about the consequences for intellectual property. I thank him for picking up the points that I made about the relationship between EU patent law and UK patent law. I think that he understands that a great deal of reassurance is needed. I do not agree that we would make life more difficult by having this requirement on Government. In fact, it is a sensible move. I would be surprised and very concerned if we did not see a degree of reporting back during negotiations on these and many other matters. None the less, he has put forward the Government’s view in response to the points that I have raised, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1


I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 15, after “do,” insert “or claims to do,”.

This amendment deals with people or companies who hold themselves out as the primary infringer: ie, they claim to be the manufacturer or importer of a product (and therefore can be written to freely) when, in fact, they are not. A definition is provided in amendment 3.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, page 2, line 19, at end insert—

“(4A) A threat of infringement proceedings is not actionable if the threat—

(a) is made to a person mentioned in subsection (4), and

(b) relates to—

(i) potential future acts of infringement, or

(ii) other acts of infringement

which are fundamentally similar to the current alleged act of infringement.”

This amendment would allow communications from the rights holder to the primary infringer to also refer to secondary infringing acts (by the primary infringer), without it constituting a threat.

Amendment 3, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

“(7) In subsection (4)(a) “claims to do an act” means the person makes an explicit claim in public that they are the manufacturer or importer of the product or process.”

This amendment provides a definition of “claims to do” in amendment 1.

Amendments 1 and 3 are related to primary infringers and those who claim “to do”. Amendment 1 addresses the concern about the impact on those who claim to make a product and the potential for action to be taken against them. Amendment 3 defines “claims to do”.

We are dealing here with communication and threats. As the Bill stands, the onus is on a rights holder not to communicate with a party that claims to be a primary infringer of rights. The example that springs to mind is that of an own-label brand in a supermarket. Under the Bill, a manufacturer who believes that a product contravenes their rights may not communicate with the supermarket unless they are confident that there is no other way of finding out who the manufacturer really is. The problem is that smaller manufacturers wanting to challenge the bigger players may not have the expertise or access to expertise needed to comply with the provisions of the Bill. They do not have the staff, time or money to engage legal services or to search for the true identity of the manufacturer. The Minister said in Committee that if action were taken against a rights holder, they would be able to defend themselves in court. Now, that is entirely accurate in legal terms, but the problem is that smaller organisations lack the resources to be able to do so.

As my hon. Friend may well have said in Committee.

The problem is one of imbalance. Our court system necessarily favours those who have the deepest pockets and the greatest resources, and that does not mean smaller businesses. Will smaller businesses risk winning or losing in court? Will they have the money to defend themselves against an action, or will they think it is worth defending their intellectual property in the first place? It will be for the courts to decide whether a rights holder could have found out who the primary infringer was. For smaller businesses, it could well be a tough choice as to whether they believe the court will back them when they say in court that they did not realise that they should not have contacted the apparent infringer.

If not through what I am proposing, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) proposed in Committee, how does the Minister propose to ensure that there is a level playing field between protecting the rights holder, especially the smaller rights holder, and preventing unjustified threats, especially where the rights holder is the smaller party? How does he propose to guarantee smaller businesses the ability to operate on a level playing field? To be entirely fair to the Minister, I completely understand that that is the purpose of the whole Bill. My thanks go to the Law Commission for its work in delivering to such an objective. The Bill very much has in mind the need to balance protection and encouragement for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors with the need to ensure a fair market and to prevent unfair and exploitative competition. However, there appears to be a degree of ongoing potential for imbalance in the legislation regarding those who claim to be the manufacturer or the primary infringer, and the Minister’s answers in Committee did not go far enough to guarantee that smaller businesses will be protected.

Amendment 2 would address some further concerns of smaller businesses that lack the resources for legal advice and that may fall foul of the Bill’s narrow remit. The amendment addresses the problems where a rights holder challenges not just the primary infringement but secondary acts of infringement. The rights holder may wish to prevent future infringement or to comment on related infringements of a similar nature. The amendment would minimise the fallout from inadvertent infringements. The amendment would not penalise a rights holder for mentioning secondary infringements when such communication was about potential future infringements or similar current infringements. The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys raised the concern that future infringements are excluded as the Bill is now drafted.

It seems reasonable to ask an infringer to stop now and in the future, and not to carry out similar infringements, so amendment 2 also deals with the concern of smaller businesses that lack the resources or expertise to ensure that all their communications are strictly compliant with the Bill’s provisions. I agree with the Minister that rights holders ideally should get their communications right, and that is a large part of the thrust of the Bill, but my concern is that the lack of access to legal expertise for smaller businesses could be a real problem.

I am afraid that I did not follow some of the Minister’s counter-arguments to the amendment in Committee—for example, that the amendment would make it harder for rights holders to approach alleged primary infringers with confidence. In fact, our intention is precisely to increase confidence, especially among smaller businesses as they attempt to protect their intellectual property. Again, if the Minister will not do this through amendment 2, how will he? If CIPA is wrong, in what way is it wrong? If the language is vague—a point that the Minister made in Committee—why has his Department not suggested clearer language? With all the expertise here today and in the Department, it should be possible for the Minister to obtain the clarity of language to address the concerns we have raised. Did he actually ask for that kind of advice, clarification and language that would have addressed the problems, provided the additional assurance to smaller businesses and helped to alleviate some of these concerns? If not, why not?

One of the key purposes of the Bill is to simplify an important but complex area of intellectual property law, making it more accessible and easier to use. One way in which it does this is by setting out a clear statement of those acts that a rights holder can safely refer to in a communication, and that will not trigger an unjustified threats action. This helps to encourage rights holders to communicate with the trade source of an alleged infringement. It would include those who manufacture or import patented products or use patented processes, for example. Such acts are known as primary infringements.

Amendments 1 and 3 seek to make it allowable to approach someone who explicitly claims to be a primary infringer. I am not convinced that there is problem that needs to be solved, but, in any event, there are two key points. First, under the reforms as they stand, a rights holder can already communicate with potential infringers of all types, including those identified by amendments 1 and 3. The Bill provides clear guidance on how this can be done. The provisions therefore make it easier for parties, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to communicate and resolve issues without the need for litigation. Secondly, it is perfectly allowable to make a threat to anyone so long as that threat refers only to manufacturing and importing, or other primary acts. Someone making such a threat would not be at risk of being sued, even if the recipient was falsely claiming to do those acts. For these reasons, as well as the additional complexity introduced, I do not accept that amendments 1 and 3 are appropriate.

Moving on to amendment 2, I agree it is important that issues of infringement can be raised early, before real commercial damage is done. For that reason, the Bill already allows threats to be made in relation to future or intended acts of primary infringement, so amendment 2 adds nothing in that regard. Furthermore, the Bill already allows the rights holder to refer to certain secondary acts when communicating with an alleged primary infringer. When someone is manufacturing an allegedly infringing product, the rights holder can also discuss the retailing of that same product. Users wanted this, as it is pragmatic and helps to save time and money, but it would not be right to extend this further and allow threats to be made to that same manufacturer about the retail or stocking of other products that they did not make themselves. That could damage businesses that retail products acquired from a legitimate manufacturer, and would disrupt the ability of that legitimate manufacturer to operate in the marketplace—an outcome that the threats provisions exist to prevent.

Finally, it is highly uncertain for businesses what would be considered to be “fundamentally similar” acts of infringement, as set out in the amendment, and litigation on the meaning would no doubt ensue. If the intention is to capture only similar products, I do not think that is achieved.

These amendments would introduce additional and unwelcome complexity. They would blur the line between who is protected from threats and who can safely be approached. Rather than benefiting rights holders, this could instead make getting legal advice more difficult and costly. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendments.

We appear to have rehearsed, more or less word for word, what happened in Committee. I am disappointed by the Minister’s responses, because he does not appear to have picked up on the concern about the imbalance between larger and smaller businesses—a fundamental element of what we think is missing from the Bill as drafted. I would like greater clarity from him, but perhaps that will come as the Bill is implemented. I urge the Government to consider the impact on smaller businesses. On own label, apparently once the rights holder has found out that an own label product is not made by a supermarket, such action would have to cease or it would be covered by the legislation. That was certainly our intention in the amendment.

I hope that our points about the need to protect smaller businesses have been well made. I thank the Minister for his responses, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Intellectual property is crucial to supporting economic growth and a key part of our industrial strategy. I am therefore pleased that this small but important Bill is completing its passage today. The Bill will ensure that businesses, especially SMEs, are best able to make use of the IP regime. In doing so, it will help to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment to make the UK the best place in Europe to innovate, patent new ideas, and set up and expand a business. The Bill brings clarity and consistency, making it easier and cheaper to solve infringement issues quickly and without litigation. It clearly defines how information can be exchanged to resolve disputes over IP infringement. It also means that legal advisers will now be better able to help to settle disputes without becoming embroiled themselves.

The reforms contained in the Bill are widely supported by stakeholders, not least because of careful research and consultation by the Law Commission. I thank the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission for their hard work and expertise in developing these reforms, and for the excellent support they have given the Bill during its passage. I would like briefly to highlight the value of the Law Commission special parliamentary procedure used in the passage of this Bill. The Bill has been strengthened by, in particular, the detailed scrutiny in the other place afforded by that procedure. I am grateful to hon. Members in this House, particularly those who served on the Committee, for their interest and for giving this Bill due consideration. My thanks also go to the hard-working Bill team and to Intellectual Property Office officials for their exceptional work.

The unjustified threats provisions are a valuable part of the wider IP regime and provide much needed protection. These reforms will ensure that those provisions are fit for purpose and make a real difference to our innovators, designers and businesses. I commend the Bill to the House.

I join the Minister in saying that the provisions of this Bill are, overall, exactly what is needed to create a level playing field and support and encouragement for innovation and creativity. Those who develop ideas need to have their ideas protected and supported, and bringing together the different elements of intellectual property legislation in the way that this Bill does is very much the right way to go. I mentioned on Report some of the figures and the benefits derived from the fact that the UK has one of the finest IP systems in the world. We must do all in our power to ensure that that continues because it is one of the reasons that this country is an attractive place for investment, and that is one of the reasons we must be optimistic about our future, despite the many challenges that we currently face, particularly the uncertainty around Brexit.

However, we have raised concerns throughout this process. It is a shame that there was not more in the Bill about alternative dispute resolution. The opportunity to tighten things up in relation to smaller businesses would have been welcome, but that has not happened. We need to reward innovation and entrepreneurs, and to balance that against the creation of a fair market and a successful economy. The Minister mentioned the industrial strategy Green Paper. It is critical to the success of the industrial strategy that our intellectual property system functions as well as possible. I hesitate to say that I look forward to how this will develop during the Brexit negotiations, but we certainly need to work extremely hard to make sure that the success of our IP system is retained during those negotiations because of the very close linkage between IP in this country and across the European Union. The Minister mentioned the protection for legal advisers. That is a welcome step forward, as is the clarity and consistency achieved by this Bill. We certainly support its core principles and the overall aims and objectives that have been achieved.

I add my thanks to the Law Commission, to those who have worked on the Bill, and to those who served on the Bill Committee. I hope that the Bill will achieve what is intended for it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

I must say that that is the most efficient debate on a Bill I have ever seen in this House, and I think that somebody somewhere ought to be commended for it.