There's more to IP than taming pirates

Inside the Enterprise: Content and software piracy attracts the most publicity, but a new campaign aims to bolster intellectual property's role in the European economy.

A group of intellectual property (IP) experts gathered at Microsoft's office in Brussels last week to discuss how to change the way Europeans think about IP.

They included inventor Trevor Baylis (pictured above), Philippe Lacoste of the fashion and sports ware brand, MEPs and members of the software giant’s legal team.

But this was not the usual gathering of record companies and music studios, set to co-ordinate their fire on the torrent sites or the Pirate Bay. In fact, the music and movie industries were mentioned only in passing and there was no impassioned debate about the pros and cons of ACTA.

Ideas Matter, as the group calls itself, has a wider remit than anti-piracy. Instead, it is setting out to promote the value of intellectual property, and the economic wealth that is so closely tied to both its creation and its protection. Around a third of the US economy depends on IP, and the EU wants to catch up.

Digital piracy is, of course, an issue. Microsoft is not often portrayed as a victim, but its Windows and Office products are among the most pirated software applications in the world. But it is not just about stopping someone duplicating Office DVDs by the container-load. It is, as the company's associate general counsel Ronald Zink says, as much about protecting the small ideas, and the small inventors.

There are practical hurdles. Europe lacks a single, coherent intellectual property framework, often forcing inventors and brand owners to register trademarks and patents several times over.

The costs are high. As Trevor Baylis explains, protecting a patent can cost upwards of £50,000. "But then someone comes along and steals your idea, and the lawyers want another £100,000 to fight it," he says. Individual inventors and SMEs can scarcely afford those fees.

Part of the answer lies in raising awareness, so that inventors know when to start the patent application process, and what they can say in public about their ideas. The EU is working to make the process easier, and to boost the amount of advice on offer, especially to smaller firms.

And, although the internet is a great help to companies when it comes to product development, fundraising, manufacturing and distribution, it also makes it much easier for people to copy ideas. SMBs, in particular, often lack the IT security measures needed to protect designs and blueprints, for example.

Europe lacks a coherent intellectual property framework, often forcing brand owners to register trademarks and patents several times

Physical copying is also an issue. Ripping CDs to MP3s is one thing, but, as Philippe Lacoste warns, there are entire factories set up to make counterfeit physical goods. These can look convincing, even if they rarely match the quality of the original.

One way of clamping down on the problem, he suggests, is to go after online merchants, and payment gateways, to identify the fakers. But, this would require much better international co-operation, which will take time.

Although Ideas Matter is not specifically a campaign for the IT industry, in many ways IT is central to the task of protecting IP. Legal protection, either through the courts or organisations such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation, can do so much to protect companies, if they fail to safeguard their own data and IP from loss or theft.