Letter: The patent dangers of privatisation

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The Independent Online
Sir: I wish to draw attention to yet another 'privatisation' idea that appears to be under consideration by the Government, and which is a matter for the gravest concern. On 30 June 1993 Patrick McLoughlin, the minister responsible for the Patent Office, announced a review of the role of the office, to consider how best to build on the progress since its establishment as an executive agency of the DTI in 1990. The announcement included a reference to the possibility of putting some or all of the office 'into the private sector'.

The Patent Office has indeed made considerable progress over the last few years and (to use the minister's words) has become a more commercially oriented organisation. However, this is no reason for treating it as an ordinary commercial undertaking. The fundamental role of the Patent Office is and always has been the regulation of the grant of monopoly and other exclusive rights, such as patents, designs and trade marks.

Through its experienced officials, the office exercises a variety of functions. These include not only the grant and refusal of such rights, but deciding the terms of licences of intellectual property rights in some situations. In all cases it is necessary to balance the interests of the parties with the public interest. These functions are all of a judicial nature.

I understand that the review (by Price Waterhouse) has been completed, but no details of the report or its recommendations have so far been made public. I believe that most, if not all, of those representing interested organisations who have responded to questions from Price Waterhouse have opposed the principle of privatisation. It would, I suggest, be quite wrong for a body having the responsibility for the grant of monopoly rights, and having judicial functions to exercise, to be other than a department of government, under a minister of the Crown answerable to Parliament.

If the Patent Office were to be privatised, even if commercial pressures did not have the effect of impairing its impartiality, there would be a serious danger that the public confidence in its operations would be undermined.

Yours faithfully,

CHRISTOPHER MORCOM

London, EC4

3 November

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