Thursday, 5 February 2015

Let me tell you a story...

5 February 2015 - a serious post

It feels like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?  We’re the Chartered Institute of “Patent Attorneys”.  Our members are patent attorneys.  We represent patent attorneys.  We understand them.  Chartered patent attorneys are the Best Thing Ever in the IP world and we have staked our reputation on that.

So why would we want to open CIPA’s arms to other IP practitioners?  Why dilute the valuable CPA brand?

The question arises because we are rewriting our Bye-laws.  We could go for a cosmetic touch-up, simply to modernise voting procedures and the rules about meetings.  But a new set of Bye-laws requires the approval of the membership, not to mention the Privy Council, so while we’re about it, should we not also take the opportunity to ask ourselves the bigger questions about categories of membership, about who we let in and who we allow to help shape the Institute’s future?  Especially at this time of expansion and change in the IP world – is it not time to look again at our Institute’s role?

Patent attorneys are notoriously wary of change.  I know there are many who abhor the suggestion that CIPA might dilute its core of chartered patent attorneys with other more lowly types of IP practitioner.  And maybe their instincts are right.

But I’m concerned.  I’m concerned that we’re not thinking strategically enough.  That, in typical patent attorney fashion, we’ve not looked at the big picture.  That we haven’t considered the potential consequences of remaining small and elite.

So I’d like to tell you a story.  Normally it’s Mr Davies who does the story-telling round here, but I hope he won’t mind my borrowing his approach just this once.


Once upon a time, some very clever people learned to make stained glass windows.  They were beautiful stained glass windows and they were exquisitely crafted.  People came from far and wide to see them, and paid many hundreds of pounds to buy them.

The stained glass window makers were justifiably proud of their skills.  Together, they founded a Chartered Institute of Stained Glass Window Makers.  Only the very best stained glass window makers could join this institute, and they had to pass rigorous tests to do so.  But their work was respected world-wide.  Their institute kept them safe, and spoke out for them, and at the same time it made sure that they maintained their enviable standards.

Over time, stained glass windows gained in popularity.  Everybody wanted one.  The Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers could hardly keep up with demand.  But they refused to let standards slip; their windows remained as exquisite as ever.

As the windows gained in popularity, interesting things began to happen.  Some other very clever people learned how to instal the stained glass windows in interesting new ways.  Others learned how to clean the stained glass windows, still others how to repair them.  Some became good at advising customers on the type of stained glass to include in their buildings, others at creating new colours and designs for the glass.  A whole new industry grew up.

Now, the people who designed and installed and cleaned and repaired and advised on the stained glass windows could not, for the most part, make them.  And the Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers, well, beautiful as their windows were, most of them weren’t able to instal or clean or repair.  The truth was, a customer who owned a stained glass window, or who wanted a new one, probably had to consult several different experts. 

The Chartered Institute of Stained Glass Window Makers saw its opportunity.  It cared about the stained glass window industry.  It cared about everything to do with stained glass windows.  So it changed its name to the Chartered Institute of Stained Glass Windows.  A tiny change, but significant.  Because then it could allow the stained glass window designers to become members, and the installers, and the cleaners and repairers and advisers.  Each of these groups had its own set of tests to pass.  All of them worked to exquisitely high standards.  They shared their expertise.  They learned from one another.

As the membership grew, the Chartered Institute became more wealthy and more influential.  If a customer needed anything to do with a stained glass window, he knew who to visit.  If a businessman or a politician or a journalist needed to know something about the stained glass window industry, he knew who to ask.  This was a vibrant, active and forward-thinking community, quick to grasp opportunities and respond to threats.  But it hung on to its core values; standards did not fall; its members were welcoming, but they were still proud.

The industry boomed.  There were stained glass windows everywhere.  And at the hub of this industry, the Chartered Institute also thrived, maintaining a reputation second to none; speaking out for the industry; helping it to develop.  Cowboys came and went, with their shoddy second-rate windows and their shoddy second-rate window designs, but customers knew they could rely on the Chartered Institute if they wanted a quality product.

Now let me tell you another story.

This story begins in the same way as the first, with the very clever people who learned to make stained glass windows.  It too sees the establishment of the Chartered Institute of Stained Glass Window Makers.  But in this story, when stained glass windows gained in popularity, the Chartered Institute took a different line.

In this story, the Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers guarded their skills jealously.  They sneered at the advisers and designers and installers, the cleaners and the repairers, who could not themselves make stained glass windows to save their lives.  Fearful of being undermined, the Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers issued a proclamation, explaining that only they could make the exquisite stained glass windows the world deserved.

The world didn’t understand.  Exquisite stained glass windows were no good on their own.  So the world called in the advisers and designers and installers, and it wasn’t long before the advisers and designers and installers were learning to make the stained glass windows themselves.  Some of them did quite a passable job, as it turned out.  Sadly, some of them did not – and the Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers weren’t about to help them learn.  The industry gained a reputation for being, well, unreliable to put it kindly.  The advisers and designers and installers tried to set up their own chartered institutes.  So did the cleaners and repairers.  But somehow, it didn’t quite work out. 

Stained glass windows became less popular.  The industry waned and the public lost confidence.  The Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers continued to make exquisitely beautiful stained glass windows, to impeccably high standards, but their customers were few and their influence small.  They sat at the fringes of the construction industry, quietly practising their craft and mumbling to one another about happier times.

There is a third story.  Of course there is.  It’s a mixture of the first and the second.  The stained glass window industry thrives but the Chartered Institute of Stained Glass Window Makers is not at the hub of it.  The Chartered Stained Glass Window Makers sit on the side-lines, respected but hardly influential: a small, elite group, highly skilled but a little out of touch.  Their customers are wealthy but there aren’t many of them.  People have realised that they don’t need a gold-standard stained glass window, and turned to cheaper alternatives which are still colourful, still pleasing on the eye, still good enough, despite their minor flaws.  Sometimes the master craftsmen complain at their lot.  They criticise the cheaper alternatives.  But they don’t get out much, so no-one hears.

Three stories.  Three very different outcomes.  Which one is CIPA’s? 


We’re IP attorneys.  We know that sharing, licensing, collaborating, can turn a patented invention into a platform technology.  And we know that if you want to play your patent for exclusivity, you’ve got to be very, very sure you’re ahead of the competition.

CIPA is well placed in the IP landscape at the moment.  Let’s think long and hard about how we want to play it from here.  And about the consequences for the UK’s IP professionals, our businesses, our livelihoods.  Are we niche artisans or bold entrepreneurs?  Please, let’s not be so proud of ourselves that we end up as the Betamax of the IP world.


  1. The expanded Chartered Institute of Intellectual Property Advisors (CIIPA) sounds fine to me, as long as we do not lose sight of what makes us valuable as patent attorneys, which is our specialist knowledge and expertise. Mixing this with people having other specialist knowledge in related areas is definitely a Good Thing. However, I do not agree with those who suggest that patent attorneys need to be branching out into advising on other areas, as this is dangerous and detracts from our core skills. Patent attorneys will tend to specialise in particular areas, whether this is in a technical field or in an area of IP such as licensing or litigation, but cannot become experts in everything, are not business advisors and generally should not pretend to be. The benefit of an expanded CIPA would, in my view, be the increased ability to mix with people having specialities that are outside what a qualified patent attorney should be able to do. In summary, I think we should stay as niche artisans, but should work alongside other niche artisans in a broader group to provide valuable services to those who want it. Economies grow by becoming more productive, and a good way of becoming productive overall is by individuals becoming more specialised and working together to achieve greater things.

  2. The analogy breaks down because a stained-glass window is a thing in and of itself, whereas a patent is but a tool which might help you to build a business but it is useless unless you can build that business and enforce it, so at the very least we need to have wider access to litigators of all types and I see no problem with business advisers too. We need to get back to our roots when patent agents were consulting engineers not pseudo lawyers too shy to litigate