According to the Sunday Times, the three top taxpayers in the United Kingdom are Stephen Rubin, Denise Coates and Sir James Dyson. This is a timely reminder of the central importance of intellectual property (IP) to the UK economy, including trade marks, copyright and patents.
In the 2017/18 tax year, the Sunday Times estimates that Rubin and his family will pay over £180 million in tax arising from their stakes in Pentland Group. Pentland is one of the largest owners of UK businesses that are based on ’brands’, including JD Sports, Speedo and Berghaus. Brands rely on the legal protection given by trade marks to protect them from counterfeits and other unlicensed competition.
Coates and her family will pay over £150 million in tax in the same period. They are known for owning the online betting company, Bet365. Much of Bet365’s revenue is derived from computer games and other information technologies, which are protected by copyright.
And finally, Sir James Dyson and his family are expected to pay over £120 million in tax in the same period. He made his fortune by inventing new types of vacuum cleaners. The competitive edge of his business depends significantly on the legal protection given by patents; he has been involved in some major patent disputes. But trade marks are also important in this market. One day, perhaps we will refer to vacuum cleaners generically as Dysons rather than Hoovers.
Between them, these three entrepreneurs will contribute nearly half a billion pounds in tax in one year, helping to fund the UK’s hospitals, schools, police and other public services.
It is noteworthy that their contributions are not in traditional fields such as land ownership or financial services, but in IP-rich businesses. IP is now firmly established at the heart of the UK economy.
It takes time for some of our legal institutions to catch up with developments in the commercial world. In fairness to the courts, they are already doing so. The UK Supreme Court now has an IP specialist in its ranks, in the form of Lord Kitchin. And the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court is blazing a trail for how a specialist court should operate for lower value disputes.
But other parts of the system are slower to change - including the Law Society. We do now have an IP Law Committee, but there seems to be very little focus on IP in the higher reaches of the Law Society. Here are some suggestions for changing the balance of the solicitors’ profession:
1. Currently, there are six ‘foundation subjects’ that must be taken in the academic stage of qualifying as a solicitor, including property law. A significant part of this subject is land law. Land law should be dropped in favour of IP law, either by making the core subject 'personal property' and including a large IP element to it, or by introducing a compulsory, stand-alone IP module.
2. The Law Society Council has 39 representatives of special interest groups and areas of practice. They include three members for commercial property, housing law, and residential conveyancing, respectively. These three interests should be merged and receive one representative, freeing up two spaces for specialists in IP litigation and transactional IP. There is also a commerce and industry group that has two representatives (one of whom, strangely, seems to be a high street solicitor who lists conveyancing, immigration, and wills and probate as their areas of practice on the Find a Solicitor website). One of these places should be permanently allocated to an in-house IP lawyer.
Mark Anderson is a solicitor, a former chair of the Law Society’s IP Law Committee, and a visiting professor at the Institute of Brand and Innovation Law of University College London