It’s not all in the mind
Scots innovations have more potential value than many of us imagine, writes Colin Cardwell
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
Thomas Edison was careful to protect his bright idea in 1880