IP Protection in the Internet Age -- Interview with John Alty, CEO of United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office

By Stella Yang, China IP,[Copyright]

In December 2013, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, came to visit China, which sparked great concerns of various media. Cameron’s visit opened a new chapter of Sino-British economic and trade cooperation, as his visit has facilitated the signing of ten bilateral cooperation agreements between China and the UK in terms of investment, technological innovation, finance, judiciary, culture, public health and other fields. Among those agreements, one of the important documents is A Declaration on Joint Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) Pilot Program signed by the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO) and the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO). John Alty, Chief Executive & Comptroller General (CEO) of UKIPO, is one of the primary contributors.


This is the second interview China in March 2011. He once said in his first visit to China, “Since 1996, SIPO and UKIPO have been uninterruptedly keeping exchanging ideas. Since then, the cooperation goes smoothly and fruitfully involving many areas of common interest, such as co-launching various mutually beneficial events to improve IP awareness, solving the common problems faced by the global IP system, etc. Only because of the patent applications of delayed transaction, the global economy will suffer the loss of up to 7.65 million pounds every year.” The signing of the Declaration on Joint PPH Pilot Program was definitely a significant milestone of patent cooperation between China and the UK. Tian Lipu, former Commissioner of SIPO, stated that SIPO has always been dedicated to efficiently conducting examination of patent applications to ensure high quality of patents, which is one of the goals that SIPO seeks by means of cooperating with the patent administrative authorities of other countries and regions to promote the efficiency and quality of patent examination as well as technological innovation and economic development.


For Mr.Alty, this visit to China was truly spectacular and fruitful. Besides the signing of this important joint document, he also visited Jiang Jianguo, Director of Communist Party and Vice- President of State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of The People’s Republic of China and signed A Memorandum of Understanding on Copyright Strategic Cooperation between National Copyright Administration of China and UKIPO. Mr .Alty also met with Liu Junchen, Vice- President of State Administration for Industry & Commerce of the People’s Republic of China and exchanged ideas on the cooperation plans in 2014, including seminars, technical communication meetings, assessment conferences and many other activities.


UKIPO, organizationally different from China’s IP authorities, is responsible for patents, designs, trademarks, copyrights and other related issues. It is not hard to understand from his professional title that UKIPO operates more like an enterprise, as Mr.Alty is a CEO rather than a commissioner. As the IP administrative authority, UKIPO is not only responsible for the application, examination and approval of patents, trademarks and copyrights, but also coordinates efforts of policy making bodies, law enforcement and corporate circles to combat criminal activities in the IP field. In order to better protect IP rights, UKIPO formulates a series of detailed regulations by releasing the annual report of summarizing the achievements of the preceding year, enterprise plan for the work in the year ahead, as well as the detailed regulations for the examination and approval procedure of various IPR projects, and even sets up the quantitative criteria on how to execute projects. More generally, this visit to China is to continue the collaboration with all Chinese IP authorities and ministries. In the UK, UKIPO covers all the aspects of IP: patents, trademarks and copyrights. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss such issues with relevant ministries of China. Mr. Alty added when talking about his itinerary.


China IP: Do you think the existing IP legal system or principles are adaptable to the new Internet environment?

Alty: The basic principles of IP, copyrights in particular, continue to be valued, as the basic principles are to encourage innovation and creativity by providing an incentive to the creator. But this has to be balanced against the public interests and dissemination of knowledge. There is no doubt that to apply these principles in the age of Internet requires the modernization of the legal framework and the UK government is addressing the issue now.

To be specific, there are three areas to concern. Firstly, it is necessary to simplify and streamline the copyright licensing because there are a lot of new businesses want to use copyright materials. Secondly, there is a need to look at the legislation and try to encourage the legitimate use of the copyright works. For example, the UK is introducing some orphan works which mean that works where nobody knows who owns the copyright can be digitalized and can be made available to the public, which is now on the shelf. Another example is in the educational use of the copyright works which is needed to be adapted for online education and distant learning. So people can be able to access in a controlled way this sort of materials with the adapted legislation. Thirdly, the enforcement is obviously more challenging in the Internet age, which is needed to address from different aspects. On one hand, it is in demand to encourage respects for copyright among consumers and find effective methods to prevent copyright infringement . One example is what is called “follow the money.” Many infringing websites rely on the advertising money. Therefore, to talk about the advertisement and try to reach voluntary arrangement mean that these infringing websites will not be able to attract advertising. On the other hand, basically, almost all the copyright holders in the UK are entitled to acquire from the courts an injunction on the Internet service providers to block the pirate websites based on the existing copyright law. And this is also quite effective. Therefore, this is the mixture of education and effective enforcement.

On the legislation, the UK has made a lot of legislative changes. There was review about three years ago of the IP regime especially the copyright regime which recommended to make some changes to let our system more flexible for the Internet age. For instance, some people think that the old law will not be adequate for the Internet age. In fact it is discovered that the basic principles are the same and the existing laws can even be used to deal with the problems of the Internet age.


China IP: Online piracy tends to appear in many countries in the Internet age. Do you think it is more urgent for countries to cooperate with each other? What can be done by China and the UK to enforce the cooperation to deal with the IP issues?

Alty: It is definitely significant to cooperate between different countries. In the coming year, we will hold the international summit of IP enforcement in London where we wi l l bring together good practices on international enforcement from all the countries of the world.

In addition, there is already good cooperation between China and the UK, such as exchanging information, collaboration of customs and other enforcement areas. This will need to be continued and upgraded. Hence, I shall meet representatives of Chinese organizations in Beijing. And the quality and quantity of their work has impressed me deeply.


China IP: In the high tech era, will the innovation be hampered if the existing IP protection cover is too wide? Do you have some advice to Chinese companies seeking to expand in the UK in terms of the IP?

Alty: The government sets the legal framework and the companies operate under that framework. And as the subject of market, the companies try to get the maximum advantages for themselves at their commercial business. So it is up to the government to set the right legal framework. There is always a balance between IP protection and innovation. In general terms, IP protection should be set levels to adequately intensify the innovation, but it should not be overdone, otherwise, the risk will hamper the innovation. Thus, we are always looking for the balance. There is certainly no infallible laws applied generally. So it is urgent to study the economics to understand what the real impacts of different options and different systems are, then we can form some judgments about what the right balance is.

All the companies should do their homework before entering the market, then they can understand the rules how it works. And basically there are very good frameworks in the UK and Europe which contribute positive environment for high-tech businesses in the UK and the rest of the Europe. Moreover, in the recent study of comparative IP regimes, the UK regime was assigned as the most competitive, which is no doubt a good one for high-tech businesses.


China IP: China will set up IP tribunals which independently deal with the IP issues. What is your opinion and advice on the establishment of such tribunals? And what influence will there be for the companies because of the establishment?

Alty: It is not for me to give advice about how China should organize this court system but to draw on some UK's experiences in this area. It can be seen that establishing the IP courts can be very beneficial because IP is a highly technical and difficult area of the law. So to have expert judges is very important. One of the important issues about the court system is that it should be accessible for small businesses. Thus, it should set the appropriate court arrangements which are not too expensive and where the cases do not take too long. The UK is trying to improve the system by setting the specialized IP court.


Mr. Alty said that UK is highly concerned about the IP policy and IP protection in China as well as the IP cooperation with China. In 2011, the UK government specially appointed an IP commissioner in China, which is the first time for the UK to accredit IP representatives abroad. Finally, Mr.Alty hoped to further deepen the all-round IP cooperation between China and the UK.

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