New Clause 1 — Future of intellectual property

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 12 March 2014.

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Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science) 1:15, 12 March 2014

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on the amendments and new clauses proposed by the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and to respond to the important contribution by my hon. Friend Mike Weatherley.

Amendment 6 relates to the Freedom of Information Act. The new exemption in clause 20 should give substantial reassurance to the academic community that important research and related information obtained or derived from ongoing research programmes will receive appropriate protection under the FOI Act. Indeed, in the spirit of respect for Scotland, which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire called for, we are implementing the so-called Scottish exemption. The provision already applies in Scotland and we are applying it to the rest of the UK. That is what we were asked to do and we are doing it.

However, I understand that there are still some concerns about whether the Act provides effective protection in relation to premature release of information created during the planning stages of research programmes, for example, information contained in grant applications, plans and licences. The Government recognise the significant value that material may have to researchers and institutions. I want to place on the record why we believe the Act is capable of protecting such material.

Section 22 of the FOI Act allows any material to be withheld if it is held with a view to future publication and it is reasonable and in the public interest to withhold it. That means that research material intended for future publication can already be protected. Also, clause 20 builds on the protection offered by section 22 by providing specific protection for material that is part of a research programme whose results are intended for publication. But the protection it offers is not just for the results; it extends to any information that is obtained in the course of, or is derived from, a research programme.

In addition to the provisions in clause 20 and section 22, the Freedom of Information Act already provides a range of other exemptions that may be used to protect research. For example, section 43 allows material to be withheld where it would prejudice the commercial interests of any person to release it, and where it would be in the public interest to do so. For example, that exemption allows valuable intellectual property to be protected, where appropriate. It might also extend to cases in which the premature release of research plans would inhibit a university from entering into partnerships with commercial partners for the purpose of pursuing research or creating future intellectual property.

In addition, section 36 of the Act protects material whose release would, or would be likely to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. That exemption does not refer to universities or research specifically, but universities and the research they undertake play a hugely important role in public life. Where the release of research material at an early stage would undermine a university’s ability to establish research programmes, and thus to do the job the public expect of it, that exemption might be highly relevant.

Clause 20 also provides parity with Scottish public authorities already protected by section 27(2) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Such is our respect for Scottish wisdom and experience that we have spoken to the Information Commissioner in Scotland and the Scottish Government about these matters, and they consider that the Scottish legislation is effective in protecting pre-publication research information. I hope that that will assure Members on both sides of the House. We will keep this matter under review, and if there is evidence that further action is necessary, the Government will give it careful consideration.

I will now respond to the hon. Member for Hartlepool’s amendments to clause 13. They would have a rather peculiar double effect. He wants to extend the criminal sanction to unregistered design, but his amendments would also narrow the circumstances in which the sanction would apply. We debated the question of unregistered design at length in Committee. The Government do not believe that unregistered design rights should be subject to criminal sanctions, because the risks involved would be too great.

I can assure the House—and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove in particular—that if it were practical to introduce this measure, and if it would not have a stifling effect on innovation, the Government would see a case for extending criminal sanctions to the unregistered design right. However, our concern is that it would not be practical to do so, and that it would stifle innovation. That is because unregistered design rights are much harder to become aware of and to track than are registered design rights. That does not mean that we do not understand the value to designers of unregistered designs, and there are other ways in which the Government can support UK designers with unregistered designs. We are working with relevant bodies, including A©ID—Anti Copying in Design—to establish the best way to do that.

Unlike the hon. Member for Hartlepool, we believe that there are clear reasons for having criminal sanctions for registered designs and not having them for unregistered designs. Registered designs are logged on an official, easily accessible Government register, which shows the protected design, the owner and other key information. Unregistered design right protection can apply to the whole design, or to separate elements of that design. Those could belong to different people and have different time scales left to run on their protection. That could create uncertainty over whether a design could be used as the basis for legitimate activity.