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Disruption is everywhere: no sector is immune. As we look back on 2019, and consider how this will play out in 2020 and beyond, the potential scale of the coming disruption to the IP industry was cast into sharp relief by the news in October that the world’s biggest e-tailer has launched a new IP service to provide trade mark registration services to small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). Undoubtedly this has made (or should make) law firms and other specialists in the IP space sit up and take notice.

The market could be about to change rapidly and irrevocably. Now more than ever it’s clear that the future of IP is tech-driven and the industry cannot wait for generational change to shake things up. When a behemoth like Amazon starts moving into your territory, you know it’s high time to adapt – and fast.

Disruption ahead?

The fact that all the law firms in Amazon’s new ‘IP Accelerator’ network have agreed to competitive, pre-negotiated rates for trade mark registration work suggests they need to be operating with maximum efficiency in their processes. In order to get onto the programme in the first place and to be cost effective and profitable within such a regime, those firms will likely need to deploy sophisticated tech tools such as automation to speed up routine tasks and machine learning to sift through vast and disparate global IP databases.
Granted, it may be the case that these firms are willing to take on the trade mark work as a loss leader because being part of the IP Accelerator will also open up opportunities to win associated IP and other work from those businesses (only trade mark services are set on a fixed fee). But either way, this development has clear ramifications for the legal IP market at large and needs to be taken very seriously at the most senior level. Firms will be asking themselves: what can we do to stave off this emerging potential threat to our business model?
Perhaps that rather rude shock may turn out to be no bad thing, stimulating debate around - and accelerating – high tech investment decisions that may otherwise have still been several years in the making.

While many law firms have started to embrace technological solutions in areas like matter management and document review, strategic digital adoption to drive forward specific practice areas like IP remains limited. Some firms are waiting for the initial innovations made to date to bed down and there’s little impetus to roll concepts like machine learning out more widely.

There may be a sense that the innovation box has been ticked, and that further advances can wait until the next generation of partners comes up to the top ranks. The current generation of senior partners, who hold the most sway in the decision-making process, are typically happy with the established status quo and/or the existing pace of change.

Rapid response required

But with the likes of Amazon now in the frame, there are real and pressing questions around whether those digital investment decisions can be put off for that long. The reality is that the answer is probably: no. The commercial imperative is already here.

There’s also the issue of whether that top talent will wait around until that time comes. The tech-savvy next generation of future partners may not want to enter or stay in the profession if it remains too resolutely analogue.
Regulators are also likely to want to take a close interest in this new market dynamic and will be under pressure to stay ahead of the curve. In the same way that the rise of Uber, as the figurehead for ‘the gig economy’, has created a new wave of employment-related disputes which are still being thrashed out, so similar unforeseen issues could arise from the birth of new IP models.

Disruption is always uncomfortable for the incumbents affected by it and challenging for those tasked with market oversight. And while the impact of Amazon’s IP Accelerator is yet to be seen, change is afoot. Perhaps the best way for IP lawyers to beat them is to join them, by engaging with ever more urgency the digital debate. IP is, at its core, the business of innovation and perhaps the industry should make the 2020 resolution to take a dose of its own medicine - seizing the opportunities presented by the very inventions IP protects and manages – if only to ward off the threats emerging from a rapidly evolving competitive landscape.