It’s not all in the mind

Scots in­no­va­tions have more po­ten­tial value than many of us imag­ine, writes Colin Cardwell

The Herald Business - - Profile -

AN ax­iom of­ten quoted in the world of in­no­va­tion is: “If it is worth copy­ing, it is worth pro­tect­ing.” It is ad­vice that Scots have taken to heart since early in the his­tory of patents, trade­marks and copy­rights.

When United States patent num­ber 174,465 was is­sued to Ed­in­burgh-born Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell in 1876 for “a de­vice to trans­mit vo­cal or other sounds tele­graph­i­cally” – the tele­phone – it went on to be recog­nised as the most valu­able patent in his­tory.

Bell could scarcely have imag­ined that 137 years later the tele­phone would be at the heart of a bit­ter le­gal bat­tle. Ap­ple Inc and Samsung Elec­tron­ics have been – ex­pen­sively – scor­ing points over each other in a se­ries of patent dis­putes in four con­ti­nents af­ter the maker of the iPhone ac­cused the Korean gi­ant of copy­ing its de­vices.

Scroll back to 1880, when the world’s first in­can­des­cent light bulb il­lu­mi­nated Thomas Edi­son’s path to al­most 1100 in­ven­tions he patented – and to the found­ing in 1887 of one of the old­est patent at­tor­neys in the UK, Marks & Clerk, by Ge­orge Croy­don Marks, an en­gi­neer and col­league of Edi­son – and Scot Dugald Clerk, who had de­signed the first suc­cess­ful twostroke engine. And, nat­u­rally, patented it.

Now it is the largest firm of patent and trade mark at­tor­neys in the UK, with 17 lo­ca­tions world­wide. David More­land is man­ag­ing part­ner of its Glas­gow of­fice, with a team of 50.

There have, he says, been cru­cial de­vel­op­ments in the sec­tor since the UK Patent Of­fice was set up in 1852 – not least in its re­brand­ing as the In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Of­fice in 2007. The con­stant im­per­a­tive, though, is the need to pro­tect ideas, de­signs and brand­ing and he be­lieves that there is still some way to go in Scot­land and the UK be­fore its value is recog­nised.

“Some­time in the UK we have a self-dep­re­ca­tory at­ti­tude: the idea that just be­cause we have come up with an in­no­va­tion it isn’t par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant, as some­one else is bound to have thought of it – or sim­ply be­cause it has been gen­er­ated at home in Scot­land.”

He points to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary, two-di­men­sional ma­te­rial graphene, for which An­dre Geim and Kon­stantin Novoselov of the Univer­sity of Manch­ester were awarded the No­bel Prize for Physics in 2010.

“That’s an ex­am­ple of some­thing be­ing dis­cov­ered in the UK where there are a hand­ful of patents filed – but lo and be­hold, you then dis­cover that there have been thou­sands more filed in the Far East.” And in­deed, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures com­piled in Jan­uary this year by UK-based patent con­sul­tancy Cam­bridge IP there were a mere 54 patent pub­li­ca­tions for the ma­te­rial in the UK – ver­sus 2,204 in China alone.

If an idea is in­ge­nious, says More­land, it is worth cap­tur­ing. “One of my con­cerns is that in the UK we don’t get t aught as much about IP and tech­ni­cal dis­ci­plines as we should be­cause it tends to frighten peo­ple – but engi­neers and sci­en­tists should recog­nise that if they are em­ployed by com­mer­cial or­gan­i­sa­tions they are em­ployed to be in­ge­nious – and to use that to fur­ther the busi­ness.”

What firms such as Marks & Clerk do, he says, is pro­vide the core skills to pro­cure IP rights for clients and to stop peo­ple from in­fring­ing them. He em­pha­sises, though, the real value of In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty. “It’s not just es­tab­lish­ing the neg­a­tive right of stop­ping some­one from in­fring­ing ideas: it helps with the pos­i­tive side – rais­ing fi­nance for ex­am­ple – and get­ting as much value for th­ese ideas as is pos­si­ble.”

The firm’s clients in Glas­gow, he says, range from the rare sin­gle in­ven­tor to univer­sity spin-offs in ar­eas such as elec­tron­ics, op­to­elec­tron­ics and biotech­nol­ogy through to big oil and gas com­pa­nies – though the ma­jor­ity are small to medium-sized busi­nesses.

More­land has par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise in off­shore tech­nolo­gies, en­ergy and nano tech­nol­ogy. Hi s un­der­grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate de­grees from the Univer­sity of Glas­gow, plus a UK and Euro­pean patent at­tor­ney qual­i­fi­ca­tion in Lon­don, il­lus­trate the range of skills the sec­tor is in­creas­ingly tar­get­ing. “Nowa­days we are look­ing at grad­u­ate engi­neers and sci­en­tists and very of­ten also peo­ple with a sec­ond de­gree or some com­mer­cial ex­pe­ri­ence – not nec­es­sar­ily in the spe­cial­ism it­self; rather to demon­strate that they are self-starters.” On the trade­mark side, he says, many peo­ple will be lan­guage grad­u­ates or come from a le­gal back­ground.

The firm, he says, prides it­self in be­ing “a global firm with lo­cal ac­cess,” adding that he has seen the skills base evolve since he be­came a patent at­tor­ney in 1989, and cites the ex­am­ple of oil and gas, an area in which he be­lieves Scot­land punches above its weight.

“Then it was rel­a­tively me­chan­i­cal in na­ture, deal­ing with ma­te­ri­als, valves and so on but over the years there has de­vel­oped a need for knowl­edge of fi­bre op­tics and even biotech­nol­ogy and nan­otech­nol­ogy – so where 20 years ago we would have ap­pointed a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer for the off­shore sec­tor we now have teams of mixed dis­ci­plines, mak­ing sure that staff with the right tech­ni­cal back­grounds are talk­ing with the right peo­ple.”

Much of the patent at­tor­ney’s job in­volves spot­ting the dif­fer­ence be­tween what the client is do­ing and what is worth pro­tect­ing, says More­land. “And that is of­ten the dif­fi­cult part of the con­ver­sa­tion – the com­mer­cial peo­ple in an or­gan­i­sa­tion can of­ten give you a more straight­for­ward an­swer than the sci­en­tists or tech­ni­cal peo­ple, bear­ing in mind that if some­thing is worth pro­tect­ing there is cost in­volved – not only an ini­tial cost but a main­te­nance cost.”

So, de­spite the in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated and es­o­teric de­mands of pro­tect­ing 21st cen­tury in­no­va­tion there is art as well as science in­volved. “It’s about match­ing what can ac­tu­ally be pro­tected with the needs of the client – get­ting un­der the skin of what they want,” says More­land. Edi­son would no doubt have ap­proved.

David More­land, who heads up the Glas­gow of­fice of the UK’s largest patent firm, says sci­en­tists should be in­creas­ingly aware of IP pro­tec­tion

Ap­ple and Samsung are hung up on smart­phone patent dis­putes

BACHRACH/US LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS

Thomas Edi­son was care­ful to pro­tect his bright idea in 1880

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