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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy

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    25 May

    I work as a Senior Patent Attorney at a leading semiconductor design company.  Previously I worked as a Patent Attorney in a UK Patent and Trademark Attorney firm, and before this I spent some time working as a Railway Engineer.  I studied at the University of Oxford achieving a Masters in Engineering Science and am also delighted to have been named as an ‘inventor‘ myself on a patent application.  Patents are fascinating but this area of professional expertise is not well known so I’ll explain further. Britain continues to grow into a knowledge economy where ideas are often developed and commercialised in the UK but manufactured abroad.  In order for businesses to protect their investments and products whilst maintaining their commercial edge; intellectual property (IP) rights are used.    From patents protecting new pharmaceutical drugs and electronics; trademarks and registered designs protecting new fashion ranges to trade secrets and confidential information protecting the latest Formula 1 cars.   IP is protecting innovation developed by companies in the UK every day.  Although all the types of intellectual property may be used to protect innovations in STEM areas, patents are often particularly valuable to companies.

    The first patent laws were created in the sixteenth century to try to encourage inventors and businesses to share their knowledge and discoveries publicly.

    Prior to governments issuing patents, most business knowledge was controlled by powerful Guilds and only available to their members.  This resulted in developments being constrained by the limited information available.  The hope was that the monopoly right patents provided, would encourage inventors to publish how to perform the invention.  This in turn would enable others to build on the information provided within the patent and result in furthering scientific progress. The monopoly right provided by a patent lasts for up to 20 years and enables the patent owner to prevent others from working the invention and so recoup the investment costs required to devise the invention.  One method of doing this is to use the patent to protect the market in which the patent owner is selling goods by preventing competitors from doing the same thing.  A good example of a market where this is still a key use of patents is in pharmaceuticals where a company may use its patent to prevent any generic versions of a drug from being made available. This approach is particularly suited to areas where any one product is only covered by one patent.  However, in some technical areas, for example telecommunications, there may be thousands of patents which could cover a single product.  In these areas competitors tend to implicitly accept that they all infringe each other’s patents and so have agreements not to sue one another or more explicitly agree to cross-licence each other’s portfolios.

    The recent smart phone patent wars were caused by a new entrant to the telecommunications market disrupting these agreements.

    They also showed businesses that their patent portfolios could be treated as tangible assets. This has led to a rise in so called Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) who buy patent portfolios from struggling or bankrupt companies and then assert them against companies who are manufacturing or selling products in the hope of extracting licence fees and royalties. Whether it is to protect investment or develop new products and markets, Patents provide a vital tool to enable UK businesses to prosper, facilitating both the sharing and safeguarding of knowledge in a global economy.

    Adeline-Fleur Smith
    Senior Patent Attorney at ARM