Thursday, 15 October 2009

Chipping Away at ActionAid

I posted a while back about ActionAid and their somewhat crass venture into the field of intellectual property. I included a copy of my email to them; they have now replied.

If you recall, their article said

To highlight the injustice of patents on food, ActionAid 'invented' a ready-salted chip, nd filed for a patent. If successful, could be granted legal rights over the ActionAid hip, and any chips that have salt added to them. So we could demand that chip shop owners throughout the UK pay for a licence to add salt to their chips. With 300 million servings of chips sold each year, we could stand to make millions
New patent rules allow companies to get exclusive rights over basic foods and even ature itself, simply by adding something to it or modifying it in a way that has not been done before.
My email to them pointed out that this was somewhat misleading and asked for further details or a retraction. Their reply is:

Thank you for your email regarding the spoof patent application made by ActionAid on 2002, ‘The ActionAid Chip’. I am sorry to hear that you find the article you have read regarding this misleading, as that was certainly not our intention.

As I have mentioned this spoof patent was part of a campaign run by ActionAid in 2002 and is not related to our current work. We apologise for any confusion and we have now amended our website to make it clear that this is a previous campaign.

Please see the amended webpage here:

This spoof chip patent application was a campaign device to highlight and draw attention to the issue of patents on food crops. We were very clear at the time in our press releases and materials that this was spoof application to draw attention to the issues.

We did the application at the time of the deliberations of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR) which was set up by the Department of International Development (DfID), and which was looking at the implications of IPR rules and development policies.

Many of ActionAid's key concerns were reflected in the final report by this CIPR in September 2002, and we felt that the investment of under £100 in the spoof chip patent application was a good and cost effective use of our precious resources.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for contacting us, should you have any further queries then please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely

UK Supporter Care Team
Well, I'm not impressed. Here is my response:

Thank you for your reply. Whilst I note that the "Previous Corporate Campaigns" page refers to the chip as a past issue, the page itself does not, and still refers to "new patent rules". The potential for confusion is still significant, therefore, if readers are sent to page by a direct link (as I was).

You do not identify the application in question, but I now understand it to be GB2384968, filed on 11 February 2002 by Shalil Shetty. Please confirm whether this is the case. Assuming that it is, this allows me to be somewhat more specific as to my concerns over your article, viz:

"If successful, [we] could be granted legal rights over the ActionAid Chip, and any chips that have salt added to them. "

First, of course, the application was not successful. I have asked the Patent Office for a copy of the file, but for now it is clear that examination of the application was requested and that the application was terminated some time later. It seems, therefore, that the application met with objections. The statement is therefore misleading in that it does not make clear that the application will be subject to a critical examination intended to weed out applications covering known or obvious subject-matter.

The statement is also untruthful in stating that the patent, if granted, would cover "any chips that have salt added to them". The closest claim to this is claim 1, which refers to a chip that is "imbued" with the flavour of salt. Whilst this term is regrettably unclear, it does not (to my mind) cover a chip with an external sprinkling of salt - the salt flavour must be within and throughout the body of the chip in order to be "imbued".

A patent resulting from your application would not therefore cover "any chips that have salt added to them", nor would it cover conventionally salted chips. Your statement is untruthful.

The same applies to:

"So we could demand that chip shop owners throughout the UK pay for a licence to add salt to their chips. With 300 million servings of chips sold each year, we could stand to make millions"

The application as drafted would not cover the normal activities of chip shop owners, and would not grant you the right to claim royalties. The statement is untruthful.

Your article also fails to mention section 70 of the Patents Act, that would allow any person aggrieved by threats of infringement proceedings or demand for royalty payments to seek an injunction preventing you from doing so, and the various fora (including low-cost fora such as the Patent Office) through which the validity of a patent can be challenged.

Your article fails to set out the content of your patent application, and this (at the time) would have prevented third parties from challenging your conclusions.

Your article therefore gives the false impression that the patent system allows the monopolisation of known processes (such as salted chips) and the extortion of royalties from honest traders. I find this most insulting. In nearly 20 years of work in the patent profession, I have specialised in acting for small to medium companies, and in using the patent system both to secure for them the proper protection for their innovation, and to defend them against unjustified claims. I believe that I have been successful in doing so, particularly in securing resolution of disputes in a cost-effective and proportionate manner. Often, the patent system has been the only means for such companies - especially the small ones - to defend themselves against competing large corporates with greater commercial clout.

Your article is, in short, crass and untruthful and gives a completely misleading impression. I ask you to amend it so as to recognise:

(a) that your application was refused by the Patent Office acting in line with normal principles of patent examination, and

(b) that, if a patent had been granted, it would not in fact have given you the rights to which you refer.
I'll post any further news on the subject...


  1. Last night saw the green lobby on Newsnight railing against the [corruptly constructed] regulatory regime which is being used by corporations to monopolised the food supply. I wish you had been on there to tell them why that argument is specious.

    When anti-GM campaigners have to lie to make their point seem valid, it does make you wonder...

  2. When the chips are down, you gotta do what you gotta do.

    I'm sorry. That was a very bad joke. My Father could never take anything seriously. Chip off the old block, I guess.

    Damn. Sorry again.

    Why are you going after ActionAid anyway? I mean, it's hardly the end of the world, no one listens to them anyway. Have you just got a chip on your shoulder?

    Argh! I can't stop!

  3. Blue - sadly my invites to appear on Newsnight seem to keep being lost in the post. It must be a left-wing conspiracy.

    Stu - would it help if you got someone to talk to? (Oh, and I'm chasing them because they're lying and insulting my profession...)

  4. P,

    Can't you attempt to be more constructive with them? They are well out of their depth.

    I totally agree they must differentiate the UK more from the US, EU, Canada and Japan in their literature, but maybe you could direct them to some useful reliable sources of information? This is cheaper than giving a donation and could be of more use to them. You can point out to them how much you charge an hour. (ActionAid appear to be an effective charity that highlights many worthy causes.)

    Your reward? Let me think about that. ;-)

  5. A fair point, M, and well made.

    Indeed, had ActionAid approached me (or, I suspect, any patent attorney) before publishing the article and asked "whats all this about then?", we would have patiently explained it for them. Plently of people do so, frequently, and I for one have always been happy to explain.

    Instead, they fire off an untruthful, unchecked, and misleading rant. So sympathy is not going to be forthcoming, I'm afraid.

    I would not expect sympathy if I published a completely false article claiming that I could just set myself up as a charity and then I'd be completely free to earn without paying tax, and immune from all sorts of criticism, and all I would need to do is invent a spurious claims to a social benefit flowing from my work! These Charities must be stopped! This is an unfair denial of Government revenue and open to wild abuse by rich professionals!!

  6. Have you seen the debate that's kicking off about trade marks, google key words and sponsored links? Google 'intaflora' and you get a sponsored link for M&S too.

    No one seems to have the balls to take google on over this, but there's a few trade mark holders not happy with google for 'selling' their TM's without paying any royalities.

  7. Yes, I've been acting for a few of them. It's not the lack of royalties that upsets people, its the fact that Google sell the keywords at all and refuse to stop when notified.

    Generally, the approach that yields better results is to contact the advertiser, not Google.

  8. Hey dude, just drop it, the article may be factually incorrect, but it was published in 2002 and there was a big fuss about it at the time with people making exactly the same points as you. Just get over it.