Are there too many IP associations?

Spreading a pro-IP message and engaging in community education and outreach are positive activities, but could more be done if IP associations united as a single voice?

Earlier this year I was invited to speak at the European Communities Trademark Association’s 33rd Annual Conference about the role of IP associations. In the course of my presentation I asked, and attempted to answer, the question: “Are there too many IP associations?”

This may seem like quite a provocative question for the chief executive of one association to ask at the annual meeting of another, but it is one that I believe the IP community should be asking. To answer it, we first need to determine what roles IP associations should play in society. One of the key roles of an IP association, as for any other association, is to serve its members and bring value to their membership. Another is to be influential and bring about positive legislative and regulatory change – change that is good not only for association members, but for society at large.

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How should an IP association be serving its members? The bottom line is that it should help them to perform better in their work and to advance their careers. It can do this by providing members with access to relevant information and user-friendly resources, as well as offering regular educational programmes and excellent networking opportunities. When necessary, it should also be able to provide members with the tools that they need to promote both the value of intellectual property to their organisation and the value that they bring to their organisation.

How should an IP association be influential? First and foremost, it must ensure that brand owners’ voices are heard by governing bodies. Many IP associations have done well to foster meaningful relationships with the administrative arms of government, but they need to leverage these relationships to access the legislative and judicial arms of government as well. Brand owners’ messages must also be conveyed to society at large, which includes legislators, judges and citizens.

While IP associations can be influential within the IP community, we need to broaden our sphere of influence and be welcoming to the outside world. When was the last time you can recall a chief executive talking publicly about the importance of brands to his or her company and its employees? In many areas of the business community there is a lack of concern about intellectual property. We must bring the business community into our advocacy efforts by expanding our scope in terms of membership and bring more non-IP professionals into our associations, to our conferences and onto our boards. We must also involve the public – the IP community has much to learn from the person on the street and the public needs to be represented at our conferences too.

How effective are IP associations at lobbying politicians? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘not very’. At least, not while we come at politicians with 20-plus voices and 20-plus similar messages. We need to show that we are united, that we speak with one voice and that we share one message. Crucially, we need to show politicians that we not only represent the interests of IP professionals, but are here to expound the value of brands on behalf of all stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized enterprises and multinational corporations. In doing so, we will elevate the already important role that intellectual property plays in the global economy, in employment and in social welfare.

Are there too many IP associations? Perhaps, but each association should make its own assessment by responding to two questions: do we bring value to our members and are we truly influential? The solution is not necessarily about reduction and consolidation. Instead, we must come together to foster a single message and speak clearly with a collective voice.

Etienne Sanz de Acedo is chief executive officer of the International Trademark Association

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