Has Small Business Access to IP Services improved since the Hargreaves Review?
In November 2010, a few months after it had assumed office, the Coalition Government commissioned Prof. Ian Hargreaves to review how the intellectual property framework supports growth and innovation. His terms of reference expressly included "the cost and complexity to SMEs of accessing IP services to help them to protect and exploit IP".
At para 9.2 of his report, Digital Opportunity A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth, which Hargreaves presented in May 2011, he identified "gaps in IP knowledge among SMEs and gaps in IP services available to them" which impaired the "ability of young and innovative UK firms to realise the potential value of IP". That mattered, according to Hargreaves "because of the growing importance of smaller IP intensive firms to future growth." Hargreaves found that the reason for those gaps was that current service provision was not configured as well as it could have been to help SMEs understand and protect their IP or realize value from it. There were three main issues which served to impede SMEs in obtaining the support they needed: the complexity of available offerings; a lack of broad-based, strategic business advice; and the substantial costs involved in IP management.
Hargreaves recommended that:
"The IPO should draw up plans to improve accessibility of the IP system to smaller companies who will benefit from it. This should involve access to lower cost providers of integrated IP legal and commercial advice."
The government accepted all of Hargreaces's recommedations including this one, but access to IP srrvices for SME does not appear to have improved. It could in fact be argued that small businesses' access to IP services has actually worsened in the 6 years since the publication of Hargreaves's review in that Business Link, which did supply integrated IP legal and commercial advice free of charge in some areas such as West Yorkshire, was abolished shortly after Hargreaves appeared.
The gap left by Business Link has been partly filled by the network of Business and IP Centres ("BIPC") in association with the British Library that is supported by the Intellectual Property Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government and funded by Arts Council England. According to the British Library website:
"The British Library Business & IP Centre National Network provides entrepreneurs and SMEs across the UK with free access to databases, market research, journals, directories and reports worth thousands of pounds. There is a programme of free and low-cost events and workshops on a range of topics including business planning, marketing and intellectual property. Our friendly staff and business experts are here to help you start and grow your business. "
In addition to the the British Library there are BIPC in Birmingham, Exeter, Hull, Leeds. Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northampton, Norwich and Sheffield.
The justification for abolishing the regional development agencies and Business Link and replacing them with local enterprise partnerships ("LEP") and BIPC was that those agencies and regional Business Link networks were unsuccessful in stimulating regional growth outside London and the South East. The test of whether the LEP and BIPC have done any better must be whether there has been any sigmnificant improvement in British immovation as measured by the number of European patent applications emanating from the UK.
It would not appear that there has. According to the European Patemt Office Annual Report, there were 5,142 European patent applications from the UK in 2016 which is only 163 more than the 4,979 achieved in 2007 and 433 better than the 4,709 in 2002 (see Jane Lambert Why IP Yorkshire? 10 Sept 2009). The corresponding figures for the USA are 40,076 in 2016, 35,588 in 2007 and 30,118 in 2002, Germany 25,086 in 2016, 25,176 in 2007 and 21,039 in 2002, Japan 21,007 in 2016, 22,887 in 2007 amd 15,912 in 2002 and France 10,486 in 2016, 8,328 in 2007 and 6,853 in 2002. In 2002 we trailed the USA, Germany, Japan, France and the Netherlands in the number of European patent applications. By 2007 we lay 7th behind thse 5 plus Switzerland. We now occupy 9th place having also been overtaken in our own backyard by China and South Korea.
The propensity of small firms to innovate and protect their innovation with patents and other IP rights matters just as much now as it did when Hargreaves delivered his report but for some reason or other the public and politicans have taken their eye off that particular ball. Possibly that may be because our attention has been diverted by Brexit. Whatever the reason we need to refocus on how to encourage SME in the UK to secure their investment in branding, creativity, design and technology by seeking legal protection for those intellectual assets because it is on the competitiveness of those businessesm even more than the terms of our access to EU and other markets, that our prosperity depends.