Trevor Little

Jo Johnson, a Member of Parliament since 2010, has been confirmed as the new Minister for Intellectual Property. The move comes at a crucial time given uncertainty over the UK’s future intellectual property landscape in the wake of the BREXIT vote – making it important that he occupies the role for longer than some of his predecessors.

The news that Johnson, who was appointed Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in July 2016, had been confirmed as the new Minister for IP was announced in a tweet posted by the UK Intellectual Property Office yesterday. He replaces Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who also took to Twitter, expressing her delight that he was taking on the “compelling role”.

Johnson was elected the Member of Parliament for Orpington in May 2010 (and was re-elected in May 2015), and served as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and as Minister of State at the Cabinet Office from July 2014 until May 2015. Prior to his political career, he worked as an investment banker at Deutsche Bank before moving into journalism, serving as an associate editor of the Financial Times and head of the Lex Column. As Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, his remit now spans industrial strategy, universities and higher education reform, science and research, agri-tech industrial strategy, innovation and intellectual property.

As noted, his appointment comes at an important time, with the spectre of the BREXIT negotiations looming over the IP landscape (as an aside, while his brother Boris Johnson was a prominent figure in the successful campaign for an exit, Jo Johnson was firmly in the ‘remain’ camp). At present, the precise impact of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union on the IP ecosystem is unclear, with much to be negotiated once the government invokes Article 50 and begins the two-year process to agree the all-important detail (and let’s be honest, intellectual property will not be amongst its highest priorities).

As such, it is not surprising that BREXIT has been a recurring theme in reaction to his appointment. In a press release, Kate O’Rourke, president of The Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys (CITMA), congratulated Johnson on his new appointment, adding: “Collaboration when planning for challenges that lie ahead, including the UK’s exit from the European Union, will be vital. CITMA is committed to working with the IPO and other key organisations to ensure the best possible outcome from Brexit for the holders of intellectual property rights and our members. We continue to favour a scenario which minimises the burden for business and maximises legal certainty.”

The likely impact on trademarks is hard to immediately discern (previous coverage on the potential impact is available here and here). On the patent side, the big question has related to the Unified Patent Court (UPC), although in November – five months after the referendum – Neville-Rolfe confirmed that the government is proceedings with preparations to ratify the UPC agreement.

Mark Owen, partner and UK head of technology media and communications at Taylor Wessing, speculates that this could be a contributing factor to the timing of Neville-Rolfe’s exit: “While we don't know the reason for her move, it is notable that it comes shortly after the most notable UK IP policy move this year, the ratification of the Unified Patent Court. It is quite possible that with that done she feels she has done her bit for IP and a reshuffle just before the detailed effect of Brexit for IP rights starts to be hammered out is sensible timing, allowing the new minister time to get to know the area before the serious and long term work of what the UK's new IP framework should look like.”

There is much to be done, then, and Owen adds that “it will be vital and difficult work”. To that end, it is critical that Johnson is given time in the role and the revolving door policy that has characterised the role since inception is halted. As we noted back in March 2015, the role of IP minister was created in 2007 and Baroness Neville-Rolfe was then the seventh person to hold the position in eight years. That she has stayed in the hot seat until now has resulted in continuity not previously experienced, with Owen adding: “Baroness Neville-Rolfe was appreciated by the UK's IP community both because of the enthusiasm and interest she brought to the role but in particular because she held it for two and a half years, which encouraged better joined-up policy making than previously. Before her appointment there had been a long list of short term and quickly forgotten IP ministers, reinforcing the impression that IP was not taken seriously by successive governments."

As we enter a period of potential upheaval it is more important than ever that Johnson is given time in the role, and that the door doesn’t revolve again just as critical changes to the IP system are being negotiated and implemented.


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