Tuesday, 26 January 2016

On the supposed benefits of the EU - part 1

As you may have noticed, I work in intellectual property - I act for clients in applying for patents and trade mark registrations.  That's an area where there has been a lot of European integration over the years, so in the light of the forthcoming referendum I'd like to offer my observations on the impact that has had on the UK and its businesses.  This is the first of two posts - in this post I'll look at timescales and costs, in part 2 I plan to look at some of the minutiae of EU trade mark practice to explain some of the effects of that on UK businesses that no-one ever highlights because no journalists or politicians really understand it.

Now, an unusual aspect of this field is that we do in fact have an interesting form of experiment.  In the field of patents, we have the European Patent Office ("EPO"), based in Munich but with offices in The Hague, Berlin and Vienna.  It is not an EU institution, but was created by nation states acting together to establish an international convention by which they chose to delegate authority to grant patents in their jurisdictions to a common body.  For Trade Marks (and registered designs), we have the soon-to-be-renamed Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (known as "OHIM") which acts a a central Trade Marks Registry covering the EU member states.  It is an EU body, created by a Commission Regulation.

Discussions as to setting up both offices started in the early 1970s.  The "European Patent Convention" was signed in 1973, and the EPO opened its doors to new applications in 1978.  From the start. the EU stated its intention to proceed more quickly by simply issuing a Regulation of its own that would get things off the ground long before a dedicated multilateral convention could be agreed.  OHIM was in fact set up in 1994, and opened to new applications in 1996.  So there is the first observable effect of the EU's involvement; a delay of 18 years.  In the time it took the EU to set up OHIM, I was conceived, born, educated (sort of), found a job, qualified as a patent attorney, and had almost become a partner in my business by the time I or anyone else was able to practice before the newly-formed OHIM. 

So that deals with timescales, and the conclusion from the experiment is pretty clear - if you want something done quickly, do it yourself.  Don't ask the EU Commission to do it for you. 

So, onto costs (and related things).  The EPO is, in my professional view, a huge net benefit to applicants for patents.  As an organisation, it is by no means perfect and I have (from time to time) had some very sharp things to say about it and certain of its staff.  However, most of its staff are reasonable people who reach sensible decisions most of the time, and the cost of seeking patent protection across the European continent via the EPO is a tiny fraction of the cost of doing the same via the corresponding national systems.  The EPO's fees are on the high side (especially the renewal fees), but as it is an independent organisation, they lack any form of governmental subsidy and - when considered in relation to the standard of search and examination that they carry out - are generally reasonable and justifiable*.

OHIM, on the other hand, charge €900 for receiving an application online, looking at it and either (i) accepting it, waiting three months to see if anyone objects, and then issuing a certificate, or (ii) writing two letters to refuse it (both clearly based largely on standard templates).  By way of comparison, the UK Intellectual Property Office ("UKIPO") carries out a precisely equivalent process for £170. 

I used to wonder why there was a difference.  In the EPO's case, the reason for the disparity between EPO and UKIPO fees is clear, as the EPO performs a much more thorough novelty search, has linguistics overheads that the UKIPO does not, and has a much more staff-intensive examination process so as to avoid national prejudices and ensure a more considered view of a patent application that is (metaphorically) carrying many more eggs in its basket than a single national application.  There is no obvious reason for this in OHIM's structure, though.  The budget surplus of nearly €300 million that OHIM had accumulated by 2008 did also suggest that its fees were unnecessarily high, too. 

I've since realised why OHIM's fees are so high, and it's quite simple.  If OHIM charged (say) €250 for an application, who would ever file a national trade mark application?  Rather than just have a national right, if the cost was similar you'd get much better value by getting a right that covered the entire EU, wouldn't you?  Of course, then the national trade mark registries would all close as they would have nothing to do.  So OHIM's fees are a reflection of the fact that the EU's priority is in protecting civil service staff numbers - not helping business.  In every EU trade mark application they file, businesses are being charged a €650 tax to preserve civil service jobs. 

This is a huge shame.  In OHIM, the EU had the opportunity to make a massive gift to businesses, allowing them to protect their brands at a fraction of the previous cost.  Yes, OHIM has made it cheaper and easier than it used to be before 1996, but much of the opportunity has been wasted.

If you want to look at it a different way, you could argue that the fee is set high so as to price out small businesses, forcing them to opt for narrower national rights, while allowing larger businesses to take EU-wide rights that are enforceable against those same small businesses.  Another way, then, that the cost and complexity brought by the EU's involvement discriminates in favour of the established large entities, against the SME businesses that might compete with them and disrupt their market, and contributes toward an inflexible, moribund European economy.  

So, compared with the EPO, the EU's "help" in the field of trade mark protection succeeded in delaying the benefits of international cooperation by 18 years and then, when it came, denying much of the benefit  that it could have yielded and (instead) protecting civil service jobs and extracting as much cash as possible out of businesses. 

So the conclusion on these issues is clear - we're better off out.  European countries can (and have) come together as nation states to set up the structures that we need, and doing it that way is quicker and better. 

*except maybe the renewal fees... they would ideally come down a bit, or be got rid of completely, I reckon. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

#Out

I've long known of and admired Tony Benn's five questions, and in recent discussions on Twitter I've realised that they underpin the basic reason why I want Britain to leave the EU.  In case you need reminding, the quote is:
“The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person--Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler--one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
I can't answer the last two in relation to the EU.  I'm unsure of the third, although I have my suspicions as to whose interests they serve (hint: not the voting public).  But it is the last question that is the killer.  Much as I disliked Blair and Brown and feel disappointed in Cameron, I know what I have to do in order to eject them and (in the cases of Blair and Brown) did precisely that.  So while I may have disliked the fact that Blair was elected into a position of power over me, I accepted the process.  Jean-Claude Juncker is a different matter entirely; I had no say in his appointment and I have no way of expressing my dissatisfaction with his work.

So there, in a nutshell, is my reason for wanting to leave.  I want to live in a democracy. 

That overrules everything else.  Talk for as long as you want about trivia like whether migrants should wait 6 months or 4 years for in-work benefits, I'm not bothered.  I want to have a vote as to who exercises power over me. 

I can understand that leaving will be very disruptive, and potentially quite expensive.  Well, principles are expensive, but you have to get the basics right.  Issues like "are we a democracy" are part of the foundations of our political system; everything else is built on them and it is essential that we get them right.  In time, the benefits of secure foundations will show. 

(Footnote: you may wish to relish this post, in which I praise the utterings of a hard-left politician.  It doesn't happen often.  I disagree with much that Benn said and did, but on the subjects of democracy and parliamentary privilege he was spot on)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Not Enough

OK, I've read David Cameron's letter on the subject of EU reform.  You should, too.  I've thought about it for a bit (yes, you should, too...).  It's not enough; even if he is given everything he wants, I'll still be voting to leave.  And we know, of course, that he won't be given it all, even though he will claim that he has. 

My reason is quite simple; he has approached EU reform from entirely the wrong direction.  He has identified areas that are within the sphere of EU policy and which are - today - causing some political friction.  He then asks for special terms for the UK in those areas.  That is ok insofar as it goes, but this is the run-up to an in/out referendum; it is a once-and-for-all opportunity to look at our position in the EU as an institution.  We last had a referendum on this subject 40 years ago - we should therefore be looking to the issues that may arise over the next 40+ years, the kind of issues that our experience since 1973 shows are likely to arise from the nature of the EU and the way in which it operates.  So we need to be a lot more ambitious than this. 

What we should be doing is the reverse of what Cameron has done.  Instead of identifying areas that we want to push the EU back from, we should be identifying the areas where we agree that the EU should have primacy in policy, and defining those areas carefully.  Then, any area not covered by those definitions is to be automatically excluded.  This is based on simple experience; the progress of the EU over the years has been characterised by a  steady growth in the areas of "competence" of the EU, and our relationship has been one of weary resistance, constant damage limitation.

He hints at this, with the request for an exclusion for the UK from the principle of "ever closer union".  But that highlights my other point; these reforms should be for all, not just the UK.  As it stands, even if he is allowed this, every other member will be committed to ever closer union and that will be the direction of the EU from then on.  The EU will continue to identify "competences" that it should acquire and will work on that.  What, exactly, will the UK opt-out from "ever closer union" mean then?  We will carry on with endless rearguard action, still slipping on the ratchet of integration.

So no, I'm not persuaded.  What would have brought me on board would have been a list of defined areas - trade between member states and the ability for EU citizens to live and work in other EU states (for example) - and a treaty commitment that the EU does not have and is not to seek competence in any other area.  Then, we could have done the same to the UK Government, and to local councils.  We could have renewed our democracy, defined the purpose of our institutions, and reinvigorated them both.  Instead, we just have a list of whinges that we want special treatment for. 

Vote OUT, then.  Let's have a Brexit. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

A Quandary, Surely?

I do have a little sympathy for the senior figures within Labour on one small, specific point.  It must be really upsetting to hold dearly to a set of views which you hold to be true and right, and also to know that when you stand up and honestly tell the world that you hold those views, they reject you:


...but when you spin the truth so as to present yourself as having a different set of views and conceal your socialism, you get elected instantly...

What to do.  Hmmm.  Toughie. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Same old Labour

So, there won't be a Labour-SNP coalition.  Unequivocally, no.  It will not happen:
"Ed Miliband has ruled out a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of a hung Parliament after May's election."
Well, that's the message he wanted to send, anyway.  But that's just the BBC's summary.  What did he actually say?
The Labour leader said any alliance would "not happen" as there were "big differences" between the two parties
Ah, see, that's not quite the same, is it?  An alliance will not happen because there are differences between the parties... at the moment.  This isn't a statement of principle, this is a procedural point, that the two parties cannot in practice be reconciled because there are policy differences (as of today, anyway).  The day after an election, when the keys to No. 10 are dangling in front of them, who is to say that Ed might not be "persuaded" to adjust his views on areas where Labour and the SNP differ?  Then, the "big differences" between the parties would have evaporated, clearing the way for an alliance.

Then, immediately after that, there is the "clarification" as to what he really meant:
"There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead"
None of that rules out the two parties co-operating on the floor of the House to secure specific policy aims, and (in particular) to exclude a Tory government.  It just means that Milliband intends to get his way in Cabinet.  This isn't a promise to the electorate, it is the first shot in the coalition negotiations - a warning to the SNP not to set their sights too high. 

So it's the same old Labour that we are used to from the Blair days.  Say whatever is necessary to get into power, but always make sure to leave yourself a little wriggle room.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Driving the technology forwards

I'm a big fan of technology, and its tendency to keep advancing.  I could hardly be otherwise, of course, given that I make my living from that same tendency.  I'm also quite a keen driver (as you may have noticed), so when the two come together you would think I would be doubly keen.  So why am I worried about the prospect of the driverless car?

Many worry that driverless cars won't be safe - that the technology won't be good enough.  After all, Windows crashes all the time, right?  Why wouldn't a Windows-powered car?  Well, I reckon the technology will be better than most drivers.  I suspect it already is, but that's mainly because I've seen what most drivers are like...

There is the old chestnut of driverless cars taking all the fun out of it, of course.  I don't subscribe to that, either; I think that driving will bifurcate into the mundane day-to-day stuff like getting to and from the office and the shops, which driverless cars will do, and recreational stuff like heading for a country pub in the summer with the roof down, for which we will still use sports cars and the like.  The main difference will probably be that the sports cars will all be carefully-preserved classics, which may not be a bad thing at all.

Then there are the ethical concerns, raised in various articles and recently mentioned by His Clarksonness himself in the Top Gear news section.  Essentially, this assumes that the car will have to make choices, and in some situations one of the options might be to sacrifice itself for the greater good.  A situation such as (say) a gaggle of children running out in front of the car, too close to stop in time, and the choice is to rely on the brakes and (inevitably) slaughter many kiddies, or to use the lamppost for additional braking and probably destroy the car and kill the driver in the process.  It would be somewhat galling if the car you paid a lot of money for decided to kill you, but I doubt that would ever actually happen.  Our wonderful lawmakers can be expected simply to slap an ultra-low speed limit anywhere that there might be pedestrians, so that the stopping distance is so short as to avoid the problem entirely.  Ta-dah...!

The real problem that worries me came to mind while I was thinking through the ethical one, and it is this.  At the moment, we teach children to cross the road only when they can walk to the other side before the oncoming cars reach them.  The reason for this is simple, if you think about it; the oncoming driver might be asleep, fiddling with the radio, chatting, on the phone, texting, daydreaming, or any combination of these, so there is a distinct risk s/he might not notice you starting to cross.  Therefore, you need to choose an option that fails safe, so you only walk if you will still survive even if the driver is comatose.

Once we reach a situation where most or all of the cars on the road are driverless,  this assumption will no longer apply.  We can confidently step out, knowing that the oncoming car will brake to let us cross.  The alternative is to program the cars to kill jaywalkers, which I doubt will happen.  Now, let's apply some knowledge of human nature, and think this through.  Imagine a busy town centre high street.  Shops on either side, pedestrians on the pavements, and a busy road through the middle.  How many pedestrians are going to wait for a gap in the traffic, and how many are going to make their own gap by stepping in front?  I think it's safe to say that a lot are going to take the latter option.

So, from the point of view of the driver/passenger, roads like that are going to be a nightmare - emergency stop after emergency stop.  The car's systems, by offering a level of reliability that humans cannot manage, will have effectively handed right of way to any pedestrian who feels like crossing the road.

The result will have to be the closure of all town centre roads, and their conversion to pedestrian precincts.  To keep the shops trading, they will have to provide plenty of car parks at the edge of the pedestrianised areas, and all the towns where the main roads pass through the centre will have to have bypasses built.

Actually, on further thought, that might not be a bad thing at all...

Monday, 26 May 2014

Some free advice for the Conservatives

 Offered on the blog of my MP, Steve Baker, in response to his article arguing that the UKIP surge is actually a vote for disengagement with politics, pointing at the low turnout figure.  He comments:
It is a tragic fact that politicians are once again talking to themselves while commentators encourage them to do so. We have failed to inspire the public even to throw us out.
The challenge after this election is not how to defeat UKIP. It is how to speak truthfully, hopefully and realistically to a population thoroughly disenchanted with the entire political system.
My response:

You're right that there has been a strong shift towards not voting; this has been developing over several General Elections and is symptomatic of a general mistrust of politicians.  There is a cosy stalemate that has emerged between the media and senior politicians, whereby the media limit their questions to ones designed to catch politicians out and trip them into saying something that can be misinterpreted, and politicians avoid saying anything of any substance or meaning in reply.  Both tendencies reinforce the other.  Both lead to people switching off.

UKIP have succeeded in tapping into this and presenting themselves as a break from the old order.  In that regard, by focusing on "gaffes" made by UKIP spokesmen or candidates, the traditional media have played into their hands by confirming that UKIP are not part of the club and that the Establishment is ganging up on them. 

There are opportunities in this for the Conservatives, though.  Labour have shown themselves to be a failure (I think it has been quoted that no opposition party has ever not won a Euro election until now?), so the clear focus must now be on UKIP.  The question is, why have so many Conservative supporters left for UKIP?  My suggestion would be that a general mistrust of Cameron, a feeling that when the day comes he will wriggle out of the referendum promise, and a feeling that he is a highly experienced politician and "one of them", are the main reasons.

To an extent, Cameron's shiftiness on policy has possibly been because he has been hamstrung by the constraints of coalition politics.  But now, with the Liberals effectively dead in the water and the EU staring at a clear mandate for a British exit if current terms are maintained, he can afford to strike out, say what he thinks, and maybe even do it.

In his shoes, I would

(a) Describe the exact form of EU that he would wish to see.  I for one don't actually know what that is.

(b) Set. A. Date. For. The. Referendum.  Also, publish the question that will be set.  That way, it might look as if he is committed to it.

(c) Go to Brussels and ask for his vision of Europe.  Explain bluntly that they can say "no" if they wish but it appears that the UK will leave if they do so.  Point out that there is now a hard, immovable deadline.

(d) Don't be afraid to tell interviewers they've asked a stupid question, or one based on a truckload of false assumptions.  Stop being a Westminster pansy and speak up.  Don't let them dictate the terms of the interview.  The media are not your friends, stop treating them as such.  Show a little steel.

I know of two Wycombe votes that may go back from UKIP to Conservative if this happens.