Interview with John Alty, Chief Executive Officer with the UK’s Intellectual Property Office
Nov 24 2016
The Intellectual Property Office is the official Government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights, which include patents, designs, trademarks and copyright. It promotes innovation by providing a clear, accessible and widely understood IP system, which enables the economy and society to benefit from knowledge and ideas.
Global Innovation Magazine spoke to its CEO John Alty to discuss some of his work.
What’s the remit of the office?
It’s a one-stop-shop for everything to do with policy and delivery related to patents, trademarks, copyright and designs. We also try to help businesses with advice and information so that they can decide how they best protect their IP. We are not an enforcement agency, but we do work closely with the police, customs and trading standards to ensure that IP infringement is dealt with.
If I invented something and I felt that it was being infringed could you help?
You have several options. Ultimately if it’s a patent that you feel is being infringed, you may need to go to court, but we do offer a mediation service and a service whereby we can give an opinion on the validity of your patent. We’re conscious that for small businesses and for inventors, hiring lawyers can cost money, so we work hard to offer solutions outside of court, and offer cheaper court options.
How do you see your role?
It’s all about innovation. We’re trying to operate a system that makes innovation easier, that both rewards creators and inventors, but also make sure that other people that use those inventions are able to do that because often creativity and innovation come from sharing knowledge as well as protecting it. We are trying to strike a balance, with policy, so recently we changed copyright law to modernise it for the digital age. We also encourage innovation and grant rights to ensure rights holders get what they need – but not more than they need. This way we don’t hold innovation back.
How do you promote innovation?
Working with small businesses is key. IP is quite complicated, it can be a bit of a barrier or something that people are concerned about, so we see ourselves as having an important role both in terms of information and advice, but also helping small businesses. We work with lots of partners who deal with small business; for example, we’re working with the accountancy profession so they can answer questions that businesses have, and help with signposting. Also for high growth businesses on Government support programmes, we fund audits of IP which can help them when they are looking for finance.
The remit of the office seems much more varied than I originally thought…
We published a report last year about IP and finance. More and more companies have their assets as intangible assets, not bricks and mortar. We work with financial institutions to help them assess the value of IP, to take some of the uncertainty out of it. I’m not saying there is a magic solution but we have had plenty of support from banks and business bodies, as they see that it’s important for growth.
Did you always want to work in IP?
I’ve worked in the Business Department for most of my career, I used to be responsible for our interest in manufacturing and also the way markets are regulated. A lot of the businesses that I now deal with, our customers, such as Jaguar Land Rover, or British Aerospace are businesses that I have dealt with earlier in my career. IP is a more recent enthusiasm. I joined the office in 2010 so that was a steep learning curve.
One of the fascinating things must surely be looking at the products coming through the door, do you get much opportunity to do so?
We have people who are qualified to look at the inventions and the products, but I talk a lot to our staff. They tell me what’s coming in, giving me a feel for the technology. We have an analytics department, so we have a wealth of information to share with other departments to help with policy and innovation.
You must have to employ experts right across the board as any type of product can come through the door?
That’s one of the unique points of the office. We have to cover all the technology areas. This year we will have 300 graduate level or beyond, technologists. They have to cover the whole range of technology areas. They have to keep up to date with what’s going on.
What’s the best part of your job? What do you really enjoy?
I think it’s a mix. There’s a wide range of things that we are doing. I come from a policy background so I enjoy setting the framework, keeping it up to date and trying to understand the way technology markets are going. I like to get out and about so I can talk to businesses directly and hear their thoughts about IP and how they use it. We also do some fun things. We’ve been working with the music industry and have brought out an app: a game called Music Inc. This allows gamers to guide aspiring musicians through the highs and lows of a music career in the 21st century. It’s about managing a band and the challenges they face in piracy. The point is, in a fairly fun way, to encourage understanding as to why copyright is important. So far it has about 100,000 users and it has sparked lots of discussions.
What’s currently going on in regards to innovation?
A big piece of work coming on stream this year is looking at the copyright system, making it fit for the digital era. There’s a huge amount of change due to the ease of copying – much of this is illegal – so we are trying to make it easier for people to legitimately use stuff, which we hope will reduce illegal copying. Also, our international work where the growth is: Asia and the US. We work with other offices internationally making it easier to get rights across the world. We also employ people abroad, so we have people in China, India, Brazil and South East Asia that support UK businesses with IP issues. The international aspect is really important. We employ about 1000 people in total.
I’m really proud of the fact that last year the UK was rated one of the top places to obtain IP rights, and protect and exploit those rights, globally. We’re trying to maintain that position. It gives us a real buzz to know that the UK is a great place for businesses to innovate and for IP businesses to grow
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