UCL Faculty of Laws


UCL IBIL’s ‘COVID-19: IP Law, Policy and Practice’ events reach a record international audience

10 July 2020

In three virtual panel discussions, UCL Institute of Brand & Innovation Law deliberated upon the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on Intellectual Property Law, Policy and Practice.

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What is the likely impact of COVID-19 on IP law, policy and practice? This was the subject of debate at a series of events organised by UCL Laws’ Institute of Brand and Innovation Law (IBIL), which one attendee described as ‘an unexpected benefit of lockdown.’ The three webinars attracted a large international audience. Over 500 attendees joined one or more sessions, logging in via Zoom from 45 different countries. The audience included IP practitioners, judges, academics and students as well as representatives from patent offices, policy think-tanks and NGOs, along with publishers and journalists.

Looking back on the series, Professor Sir Robin Jacob explained that: ‘IBIL organised the webinars to provide rational information and debate about how IP, the IP professions and competition law should respond to the crisis. What resulted exceeded expectations - way above what is found in the press or TV.’

The first event, held on 28 May, was entitled ‘IP Rights for Treating, Diagnosing and Preventing COVID-19’. The session, chaired by Professor Sir Robin Jacob, discussed the possible implications of the pandemic in respect of patents, designs, know-how etc for medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and medical devices.

Michael Conway, 8 New Square, kicked off with a review of the UK’s Crown Use and compulsory licensing provisions, which aim to protect the public interest in times of emergency. He also explored whether courts in different jurisdictions might refuse to grant an injunction in the case of infringement of COVID-19 connected IP rights, on the basis that it was not in the public interest to do so.

Professor Mark Lemley of Stanford Law School, outlined ‘The Open COVID Pledge’ which calls on organisations to licence their IP rights for free during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Lemley was part of a team of scientists and lawyers who devised the Pledge, hoping to accelerate the development and deployment of COVID-related apparatus, diagnostic tools, vaccines, therapeutics and software.

Professor David Lomas, UCL Vice Provost (Health), discussed the humanitarian ethos underlying the development of the UCL-Ventura breathing aids which work to keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care. The device, developed by UCL engineers and clinicians along with Mercedes (Formula 1), received UK regulatory approval in record speed – being rolled out to NHS hospitals within a month of its initial conception. The design know-how has been placed in the public domain, with interest received from 105 countries, and local manufacture currently underway in 11 of these.

In Thomas Cueni’s presentation, the Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufactures and Associations argued that IP rights would not act as a barrier to new COVID-19 treatments or vaccines. In his view, IPR ensured that collaboration, data sharing and licensing would take place: all activities vital if newly developed products were to be accessible and affordable to all who need them.

Professor Patricia Danzon, The Wharton School, discussed COVID-19 related IP rights from the perspective of health economics. She highlighted the different considerations which arise depending upon whether a treatment was found by re-purposing an existing drug/s or in new therapeutics. In terms of vaccines, she outlined the different challenges faced by higher income countries (HICs) and less developed countries (LDCs).    

Daniel Alexander QC, of 8 New Square chaired the second session, entitledCOVID-19: Copyright, Competition Law and Privacy’ which took place on 4 June 2020.

Dr Emily Hudson, King’s College London, discussed the findings of her new paper concerning access to copyright material for educational purposes during the pandemic. This concludes that the current crisis merely highlights issues with the prevailing model for academic publishing, and predicts that COVID-19 would encourage universities to embrace in-house open access publishing more swiftly and for a greater body of material. This theme was picked up by Dr Paul Ayris, Pro-Vice Provost of UCL Library Services and Chair of Copyright for Knowledge, who discussed his involvement with open access publication and UCL Press. The speakers agreed that a culture change would be required before academic authors fully embraced the OA model.

Dr Michael Veale (Lecturer in Digital Rights and Regulation, UCL Laws and Digital Charter Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute) discussed the controversies surrounding the planned NHS contract-tracing app, and highlighted the difference, in terms of privacy implications, with the existing Apple/Google technology which the Government had rejected.

Dr Christopher Stothers (Visiting Professor, UCL Laws and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer) concluded the panel with a presentation which summarised the key changes brought about by the current health crisis in terms of competition, free movement and state aid law. He outlined current  temporary measures seeking to ensure adequate supply and distribution of essential health products while avoiding abusive pricing.

The final event, entitled ‘COVID-19 and the UK IP Professions’, took place on 2 July. Chaired again by Professor Sir Robin Jacob, it considered how the COVID-19 crisis might serve as a catalyst for change for the UK IP professions.

Patent attorney Gwilym Roberts (Kilburn & Strode LLP) reported the findings of his research on the impact on patent filings of previous upheavals, including World War II and the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. Trade mark attorney, Catherine Wolfe (Boult Wade Tennant) recounted how the immediate impact of the pandemic has been very uneven across different industry sectors, and also discussed some of the positive and negative effects encountered when an entire firm is working from home.

Solicitor, Katharine Stephens (Bird & Bird) reviewed the impact on IP litigation, reporting a general downturn in the number of new claims being filed. More positively, she reported that the crisis had put paid to at least some outdated working practices and that firms were continuing to offer student summer schemes and recruit new trainees. Barrister, Iona Berkeley (8 New Square) praised how rapidly the UK IP courts and tribunals seem to adapt to video hearings which not only suited litigants based outside London, but enabled clients to be more involved in the proceedings more generally.

The final speaker was Sir Colin Birss, Justice of the High Court (Chancery Division) and nominated judge of the Patents Court. He too viewed enforced remote working as being likely to drive permeant positive changes, in terms of streamlined procedure and access to justice, while missing the collegial aspects of the Rolls Building.

For a fuller report, read the IPKat blog post on 'IBIL Event Report: The hybrid future of IP practice amidst COVID-19'.

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