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Patents in the media: UKIPO report review

The general public tends to derive its understanding of intellectual property (IP) from reporting in the media. As part of its Futures Initiative, with an objective to assess IP as it is viewed by society, the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) commissioned a report entitled “Emerging public perceptions of intellectual property in UK media”. In this article we will take a brief look at the findings, particularly as they relate to patents.

The report, which recommends various follow-up studies, looks specifically at IP reporting in UK newspapers (print and online) over a ten year period from 2012. It reveals an overall increase in the number of mentions of IP over that time, suggesting an improved public awareness, if not depth of understanding.

It is noteworthy that news stories mentioning IP tend to arise when the IP has relevance to current events or has a celebrity link or “wow factor”, such as the financial size of a settlement. Interest in, and factual information about, IP per se seem not to be motivating factors for reporting. The stories hence often have an emotive element, for example focusing on “David and Goliath” disputes, with the press often adopting the side of the perceived underdog based on sympathies rather than legal accuracy. The prevalence of social media allows the public to easily engage with and comment on news stories, which can further perpetrate misinformation and distort the facts. The report suggests that in some cases out-of-court settlement of IP disputes may have been driven by a party’s desire to protect its brand from further public criticism, in preference to receiving a legal ruling even if that was likely to be in their favour.

Regarding patents, the general upward trend in news coverage is observed. A spike in 2013 corresponds to the so-called “mobile phone patent wars” between the likes of Apple and Samsung. Many people own a mobile phone to which they have immense brand loyalty, so this subject had a broad public interest, allowing consumers to take sides, driving continued appetite for the story. The Covid-19 pandemic produced another notable increase in patents stories over the course of 2020. As vaccines were developed, a debate arose about whether the World Trade Organization should introduce a waiver under the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement to allow patented vaccines to be produced without a patent licence, to increase vaccine supplies for low-income countries. This was supported by the US Government, and opposed by the UK, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer. Reported arguments against the waiver included alleged discouragement of future vaccine innovation by the pharmaceutical sector, and concerns about unsafe vaccine production. Covid vaccination programs were of great public concern at the time, so the matter was widely reported.

A current topic of public interest fuelling some patents news coverage is artificial intelligence (AI). Some companies are using AI to produce inventions, but patent law in the UK and widely elsewhere requires an inventor of a patented invention to be human. Hence, there have been several patent court cases addressing whether AI can be named as an inventor. These attract news reports in view of public uncertainties and fears about AI.

Those familiar with the IP industry will recognise frequent inaccuracies in IP news reporting, with various terms frequently misused and misapplied. Interestingly, the report observes that errors are less common in stories about patents than other types of IP, such as trade marks and copyright. As well as poor terminology, there is often a lack of clarity about differences in IP law in different jurisdictions, or that IP rights have geographical boundaries. It is unclear whether errors arise from lack of understanding by journalists, or a disregard for the importance of accuracy. Since public perception of IP depends so much on media reporting, which is often factually inaccurate and warped in emphasis, public misunderstanding and undesirable effects thereof can flourish. The report suggests that there may be social benefits to investment in educating journalists in IP matters by the UKIPO.

The report also suggests that there may a link between IP rights holders’ behaviour and public responses to IP news stories. It therefore seems important that public understanding of IP is improved, which can be potentially be enabled by the press.

Useful link

“Emerging public perceptions of intellectual property in UK media”, UKIPO, 29 February 2024: dycip.com/ip-ukmedia-ukipo

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