Can our current intellectual property system(s) support innovation?

By Nyangala Zolho on Monday, 12 June 2023.

This year, the Innovation Growth Lab (IGL) is working closely with the Croatian innovation agency HAMAG-BICRO, during their presidency of the Taftie network of European Innovation Agencies. Our aim is to support mutual learning on key topics for innovation agencies. As part of the insights sessions that take place alongside the quarterly Taftie meet-ups (the first having taken place in Zagreb), the focus topic for discussion at the end of April in Dubrovnik was intellectual property (IP) and the role of innovation agencies in supporting this system. This blog explores findings from a recent report IGL produced for Taftie on the ways agencies within its network are currently engaged in supporting IP and insights from the discussions that took place. 

The role of innovation agencies 

Innovation, defined as the invention or improvement of a product, process or service that is later taken to the market, has traditionally been closely linked to intellectual property (IP), given that many innovations are protected through patents, trademarks, copyright, industrial design and other mechanisms. While patents, trademarks and copyright protection are likely the more well-known mechanisms to protect IP, there are other ways innovators protect their unique products, processes or services, prior to, during and after they have been taken to market  - through non-disclosure agreements, material transfer agreements and company secrets, among others. Despite a complex system involving various stakeholders, from national and international patent offices to lawyers and innovation agencies who are often involved in advising entrepreneurs and businesses on when to protect intellectual property (no easy task), globally the world has seen a steady rise in IP.

Out of the innovation agencies that responded to the Taftie survey on IP, a large majority provide IP support to businesses and innovators. A further breakdown revealed that most agencies have measures targeted towards helping businesses, researchers and technology transfer offices (TTOs), although some focus solely on supporting businesses. The kinds of support provided ranges from helping to identify protectable IP, helping investors secure IP or helping to offset costs of acquiring protecting IP. Most Taftie agencies indicate that in their national contexts the main barrier faced is a lack of awareness of IP. 

A system in need of repair 

During the Taftie meeting, discussions centred around how IP systems are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to navigate for SMEs and entrepreneurs which must often engage with their national patent offices, both the European Patent Office (EPO) and the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), and later the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) (often in tandem). As was commented by the representative from the State Intellectual Property Office of Croatia, ‘entrepreneurs need to understand the playing field’ if they are to stand a chance at being successful at the game. Even if businesses choose to not go down the route of protecting IP, they need to know how to navigate existing IP systems to avoid being penalised for infringement. A huge risk in a complex system that is difficult to understand!

In their latest book Innovation in Real Places, Professor and Munk Chair of Innovation Studies Dan Breznitz dedicates a whole chapter to the ‘anti-intellectual’ state of the current IP system. He calls out the predatory nature of certain patent trolls who solely seek to make money from rent seeking rather than the genuine fair diffusion of intangible assets, as IP systems originally designed to support. According to Breznitz, so-called strong patenting regimes are incentivizing rent-seeking behaviour as opposed to fuelling greater innovation. This has huge implications for innovation and growth, and for the ability of innovations to enable and support public good.

Ways forward 

Innovation agencies have an important role to play in educating businesses, entrepreneurs and other innovators in their jurisdictions on the rules of the playing field. The lack of ‘basic IP literacy’ is a huge hindrance and some may argue that IP knowledge should be part of the school curriculum (as it now is in China), so that all citizens have a basic understanding of the ever evolving IP system. During the Taftie meeting, the WIPO representative presented a wide variety of tools and resources available to help innovators navigate the IP system - useful for all innovation agencies to also have a firm understanding of as the first point of reference for many businesses.

Supporting better quality patents and protection will be another key point to fairly protect innovation across jurisdictions and to enable effective diffusion. In order for this to happen, all actors involved in the IP system will need to better collaborate. While innovation agencies capture information about their own programmes related to IP, 74 percent of agencies who responded to our survey said they did not know what percentage of IP is exploited in their country or the types of businesses most likely to protect intangible assets. So many innovation agencies are lacking a good picture of what is happening in their regions - something that could easily be addressed through better information sharing practices amongst innovation agencies and national patent offices; who many have existing working relationships with.

Finally, whatever instruments are deployed to better support businesses, researchers, and other innovators to navigate the intellectual property system(s), then robust testing of what works should also take place. Whether agencies are looking to improve access to information or to increase high quality patents (that diffuse innovations as well as enabling profit), robust testing can ensure that evidence is generated to inform future decisions about where the gaps in support are, and what interventions might need to be invested in further. It is true that the current IP system is in urgent need of repair but there are ways for innovation agencies and their counterparts to better support innovators, so that the system is less exploited by those seeking to misuse IP regulation to the detriment of us all.