A special, UK Intellectual Property Office (UK-IPO) investigation into patent ‘thickets’ has been launched in the wake of the Hargreaves Review, published in May. The new probe, announced in the government response to Professor Ian Hargreaves’s study of UK IP, is the first-ever, government-backed assessment of the thickets phenomenon, which has steadily become a hot topic in the IP community.
Patent thickets – clusters of rights that grow up around innovation-rich technology areas – have been seen by some IP experts as ‘barriers’, preventing newer companies from moving into and competing within the relevant markets. Their greatest effects tend to be felt among ‘follow-on’ innovators, who develop their works from existing patents. If a follow-on innovator is working in a technology area where patenting has been especially dense, the innovation will trigger numerous transaction costs for licensing elements of the initial patents, plus high total royalty payments after the resulting product has gone to market.
In some cases, prospective licensors can refuse follow-on innovators access to their IP, preventing those innovators from entering the market. In others, the transaction and licensing costs can overburden follow-on projects, yielding similar results.
In his recent NewLegal Review piece on the Hargreaves Review, Kilburn & Strode partner Gwilym Roberts critiqued the report’s lack of detail in addressing the problem. The new probe, though, aims to bridge that gap. ‘UK-IPO will investigate the scale and prevalence of issues with patent thickets,’ said the government response, ‘including whether they present a particular problem to SMEs seeking to enter technology sectors.
‘UK-IPO will then explore options for addressing any problems identified – which could include coordinated international changes to patent fee structures, if the issues prove to be international in scope. UK-IPO will publish findings on the scale and prevalence of patent thickets by November 2011.’
In other patent-related news from the Hargreaves response, the UK-IPO has pledged that it will continue to set challenging targets for the reduction of patent backlogs, with a progress report scheduled for spring 2012. Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) has pledged to help UK businesses to resolve any queries they have with the patent system. ‘We agree with Hargreaves that entrepreneurs and early-stage businesses need to have access to the best IP advice,’ said the group’s president Tim Roberts. ‘In the absence of any suggestions from the government as to how they intend to make IP advice available at a lower cost, we will continue to offer our support.’ Entrepreneurs can find out more about patent thickets from a local CIPA advice clinic. For further details, click here.
Economic effects of rights clusters to be the focus of special investigation with a report scheduled for the autumn