2 November 2012

Ooh Q, I Trust You Took A Licence

Accolades are rolling in for Skyfall, the new James Bond film, and critics are loving the return of Q, played by Ben Whishaw. The technical department of MI6 has clearly been busy since A Quantum of Solace: exploding pens are a thing of the past (as 007 is informed, rather scathingly), and Bond is, instead, issued with a Walther PPK equipped with a palm-print reader, which enables the gun to fire only when it detects that Bond is in possession.

Such biometrics have been around for a while, although this area of technology is still evolving, with a drive, in particular, for smaller, more lightweight and more portable devices.  Espacenet (the patent document-searching resource of the European Patent Office, which offers free access to more than 70 million patent documents worldwide, and contains information about inventions and technical developments from 1836 to today) reveals a number of patents and patent applications in the field of palm-print reading technology. Of course MI6, being a government department, would have obtained permission from the patent proprietor for any technology they wished to use in their gadgets. Or would they?

Sections 55-59 of the UK Patents Act (the so-called “Crown Use” provisions) allow a government department, or person authorized by a government department, to carry out acts which would otherwise infringe a patent without the consent (or even prior knowledge) of the patent proprietor, providing such use is ‘for the services of the Crown’ in the UK, and is of the kind specified in the subsections to Section 55. If Crown Use is invoked, a licence is effectively ordered between the patentee and the relevant government department.  The patent proprietor (or exclusive licensee, if there is one) is entitled to royalties and/or compensation for potential loss of profit (for example to compensate for loss resulting from being awarded a contract to supply the patented product, perform the patented process or supply an item made by means of the patented process).  The terms of the licence, including royalty rates and amount of compensation, are agreed between the government department and patent proprietor with approval of the Treasury, or in the case of dispute, by the court.

Section 59 of the UK Patents Act provides wider powers for use of inventions by the Crown during a “declared emergency” (declared by an Order in Council, the draft of which must be approved by both Houses of Parliament).  In reality, no such declaration has been made since the 1977 UK Patents Act came in to force, however, the same can’t be said, given the impending national crises which 007 is usually charged with averting, of Fleming’s fictional forays.

The UK Patents Act provides two further provisions relating to inventions which are potentially relevant to the interests of the government. Section 22 provides the UK Comptroller of Patents with the right to prevent or restrict publication, or communication to certain persons, of information contained within a patent application which might be prejudicial to national security or safety of the public.  Section 23 requires that no person resident in the UK shall file or cause to be filed outside the UK an application for a patent which contains information relating to military technology or other information that might be prejudicial to national security or the safety of the public, unless an application has been filed in the UK prior to 6 weeks before, or clearance to proceed has been obtained from the Security Section of the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office.

These provisions are intended to allow the government to act in the best interests of the public, by providing an element of control over the release of potentially sensitive information into the public domain; as well as the means for exploiting important patented technology.
So, Q’s team should be able to breathe easily.  That said, whilst researching Bond’s latest gadgets for this article, I came across a fascinating explanation of why his new Walther PPK wouldn’t actually be suitable for purpose…..