8 December 2011

Location, location, location

As my background is almost exclusively in the field of trade marks, I have been following the extensive discussions on The IPKat regarding the EU's planned Unified Patent Court wearing my geographer's hat. It seems European harmonisation has been put on the back burner for a bit as old rivalries are restored and the British, French and Germans slog it out to see who will host this Court.

The choice it seems is between London, Paris or Munich which can only lead me back to a year I can't remember, 1979.

If only this Court was due to hear copyright cases then M's lyrics, "London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about pop muzik" could have been prophetic.

The US is also having a location debate as the USPTO is looking to establish satellite offices around the country.

Detroit is due to have the first of these offices and is slated to open its doors in the later half of next year. I read an article on this that expressed surprise at this choice as Detroit's reputation is poor by American standards and it was felt this could hinder staff retention. With an election next year, it was also suggested that swing states may prove popular choices for the other satellite offices for the current government.

I'll provide alternative views not to be controversial but because our experience in the UK is different.

The Conservative Party government of the 1980s took the decision to relocate many Government departments away from London. South Wales benefited from this with its three biggest cities receiving new organisations. Companies House, the company registration office went to the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Swansea received the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Newport received the Patent Office, since rebranded as the Intellectual Property Office. A smaller office is still maintained in London, but the headquarters in Newport opened in 1991.

Newport - in this sense comparable to Detroit - would not be high up on a list of the UK's most liveable cities. This article is about a parody of the song Empire State of Mind that went viral here, but demonstrates underlying feelings towards the city.

Conversely, Newport as a location has helped staff retention as there is little in the way of IP practices in the local area or other civil service roles on its doorstep. Whilst there is no reason Patent or Trade Mark Examiners could not be coaxed into private practice or an in-house IP department, this is less true of the administration staff that form the efficient backbone of an organisation. And Examiners have not moved with the fluidity they did when based in London. As they settle in the Newport area, perhaps with families, their ability and desire to move reduces. It's also important not to overlook work-life balance and this is a strong selling point for both the UK IPO and the USPTO no matter where they are located.

Newport, like most of South Wales, is also Labour Party heartland and the relocation of the Patent Office did little to change this. From 1987 to date, both Members of Parliament elected by the people of Newport have been Labour Party candidates with their support, in the main, strengthening over this time. Newport has a population of around 120,000 so if the direct and indirect employment opportunities the Office's relocation created had little impact on local political beliefs, what change would this make to the political landscapes of far larger American cities?

Decentralisation of a country's IPO has not been limited to the UK. Ireland and Slovakia now have their main Offices out in the provinces, in Kilkenny and Bansk√° Bystrica respectively. Germany, whilst maintaining bases in Munich and Berlin, handles some operations through an office in Jena, which was a part of the former GDR.

We will have to wait and see if the USPTO picks politically expedient locations, economic hubs or takes its satellite offices to unexpected locations in the country. As for the Unified Patent Court, Paris is rumoured to be the favourite.

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