Sunday 7 November 2010

The End of Patent Agents

Download the Original Research Paper 
A recent post In Defence of Patent Agents by Barrister, Jane Lambert which suggests that patent agents are content to follow instructions and get invalid patents for inventions brought to them, led me to ponder where the profession might be going. Jane's concern is the lack of business acumen within the profession. This is a fair criticism, patent firms recruit from Oxbridge PhD standard candidates who are literate but want a more comfortable life than the research lab can offer.  Entrepreneurial flair or experience are not generally expected. Indeed, while hanging out with students interested in entrepreneurship, I have met very few interested in patent agency as a profession; whilst those that are interested in the profession have been unresponsive to my suggestion that they join iTeams or their University business club or competition.

Then I started to read a Research Paper published in October 2010 and prepared for the IPO to help inform the UK IP policy and funding for the third mission of British Universities. Academic research, it seems to me, has to be intractable to ordinary mortals.  After reading the articles mentioned in the four pages of bibliographic references, it is perhaps not surprising that the view from the CEO's desk has receded far from view.  The paper informs me that patent activity by Universities was introduced and encouraged to promote knowledge transfer. Now, as a useless patent agent, I have assumed it was so Universities could secure some financial reward for their innovation. In case you doubt me there are even  references in the correct academic format to Romer, 1990.

The interesting bits I found were that the direct costs of IPR usually exceed revenues and many University Technology Transfer Offices struggle to be profitable.  In short there is a lot of ammunition in this paper that would encourage removal of funding from the TTOs which are supporting quite a few patent agents. Because of the need to read all that bibliographic material, the researchers only had time to talk to three universities, of which only one (unnamed) could have made much value from patents as the others were a social sciences college and a former polytechnic.  Hopefully there will be some of those IP Strategists that Jane promotes to advise the IPO on how it should take such inputs and pass them on to Government.

From my personal observations, I tend to agree that IP does inhibit knowledge transfer, but not because of its existence, but because of the endless bickering over ownership, filing strategy and licensing terms which can mean industry gives up using certain University departments that could be very helpful to them.  Such anecdotes sadly don't count in the world where Political decisions are driven by Academic Evidence.

IP, especially the hard stuff, is vital if there is going to be economic benefits of UK science fed back into the UK Treasury. So often, however, Universities are wasting money on patents before any  use of the technology has been identified or in areas where the market is far too small.  It seems to me that patent agents are in a good position to contribute to the debate.  However when submissions are made by the big firms or professional bodies they are all too easily dismissed as being driven by commercial self-interest. Here,maybe, SOLOs may have an advantage.


  1. There is no reason why a patent or trade mark agent ("attorney) if you prefer should not be a strategist. Indeed, the only person who actually commented on my blog as opposed to twitter or Linkedin made the point that a good patent attorney is likely also to be a good patent strategist. And certainly there are more patent agents who are strategists than there are strategists who are members of my profession.

    However, I don't think it is necessary for a patent attorney to be a patent strategist so long as the inventor or entrepreneur knows what to expect. It is highly unlikely that a manager of a large multinational would be ever be disappointed but the chaps I see at the Leeds Inventors Clubs or the Bradford IP clinic have less experience. To them patent agents, like Business Link, are or ought to all part of a government funded system that ensures that they never lose money. And as you and I know, such a network does not exist.

    Changing the subject rapidly, I also read the SABIP Report. I have to say that I regret the passing of IPAC with Richard Gallafent, Roland Hill. Mandy Haberman and others who talked a lot of sense. I think they can take credit for the recent reforms to the Patents County Court. Had it not been their 2003 report and Mandy and Roland's much more hard hitting "system failure" report I doubt that those reforms would ever have happened.

    The SABIP paper to which your referred adds nothing to Richard Lambert's report of 5 years ago. It won't come as much surprise to AURIL.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jane. I fear that private inventors almost always believe that, by taking them on, the patent agent in some way validates their idea. This is not true. However if a patent agent refuses to act because he thinks the client is wasting his money, it can turn nasty and its almost impossible to do in a partnership. Barristers have their cab rank rule. Not many patent agents want to risk complaints for refusing to take funded instructions.