Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Protecting trade secrets: Max Planck Institute on Commission's proposals

I still haven't got my head round the proposed directive on the protection of trade secrets. I thought there wouldn't be much exciting in it - but whether that turns out to be a fair assessment or not, there is a lot in Max Planck's comments on it to excite me. (Yes, I know they are not actually Max Planck's comments - see the entry in my Dictionary about the institute, or more accurately institutes as there are as many as 80 of them under the auspices of the Max Panck Gesselschaft) named after the man, and indeed the entry in it for the man himself.) What excites me is the suggestion that the directive should extend protection to prevent reverse engineering.
What? This is the most outrageously protectionist idea I can recall ever hearing of. The MPI has often struck me as viewing intellectual property as a Good Thing without considering whether a lack of protection might be a better thing. So the Institute says:
The use without restrictions of trade secrets obtained through reverse engineering appears problematic, in particular in sectors where – other than in the case of software – no intellectual property protection is available, although considerable investments are made in the development of new products. Notable examples include the cosmetic industry, which regularly invests quite heavily in the development of perfumes, but where the know-how generated thereby can be decoded with relative ease through reverse engineering.
The unrestricted use of such know-how raises concerns that it could pose a substantial threat to the companies concerned, eventually leading to market failure whereby such goods would no longer be produced. Accordingly, it must be assessed whether the existing (quite problematic) prohibition on advertising such products as imitations or replicas should be replaced by other measures that are directly aimed at protecting the relevant interests.
Perfumes? What a lousy example to use. As Ian Connor of Pinsent Mason says in Out-Law's commentary on the MPI paper, the evidence in the smell-alike cases showed that it was impossible to achieve an identical fragrance by reverse-engineering (and the fact that a cheap imitation couldn't use the expensive ingredients no doubt contributes to that). If there is an element of unfair competition in imitating fragrances, then it has to be dealt with as unfair competition: for goodness sake, don't try to bring trade secrets law to bear on it. In so far as trade mark law is part of the law of unfair competition, that approach has been tried, but just because it has failed doesn't mean that we need to try something else. And just because something isn't protected doesn't mean that there is a hole in the system that needs to be repaired.

I first encountered the idea of reverse-engineering in the context of the good old Morris Marina exhaust pipe - in other words, in the dispute that eventually gave us BL v Armstrong. Copyright was used to try to stop reverse engineering, because (unlike a smell-alike) you could  make a perfectly serviceable and accurate copy of an exhaust pipe by measuring the relevant dimensions. Did the House of Lords say "oh, here's something that isn't protected, let's see if we can find a way to make the law apply?" Not at all. In fact the starting point was the opposite: here was something that copyright did protect, even against reverse engineering, and their Lordships were pretty clear that they thought this was wrong. (Lord Templemann and Lord Bridge, as I recall, to the fore: two judges who for several years resisted every attempt to expand the scope of intellectual property protection, whether in exhaust pipes, bottle shapes (as trade marks: Re Coca-Cola), sound recordings (CBS Songs v Amstrad), plastic toy bricks (Lego v Tyco), or television show formats (Green v Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand). The majority in the House of Lords (Lord Griffith going about it in a different way, if I remember correctly) resolved the problem in the consumer's favour by reference to the "non-derogation from grant" principle known to landlord and tenant law - an even more egregious example, it has to be said, of using one law to solve a deficiency in another than the MPI's wish to use trade secrets law to solve an unfair competition problem.

The law should only give protection where there is a good reason for it. That, I think, is the "evidence-based policy-making" that Hargreaves was so keen on, and which the government seems to have forgotten about even before the ink was dry on the Professor's work (hence the increase in copyright term for sound recordings, and perhaps likewise the latest bunch of copyright "exceptions", or permitted acts as they ought properly to be called). There are limits to intellectual property protection for good reason. Some matter remains unprotected deliberately - for the simple reason that there is no justification for protecting it. There would be no incentive for anyone to do anything that they were not already doing, just a supernormal profit to be taken at the expense of the consumer. Consumer welfare in the strict economic sense is not the be-all and end-all of the matter: when you analyse this stuff as property, human rights become engaged, and a property owner should not lightly be deprived of it. But in the case of reverse engineering we are talking about matter which is not protected by property rights, and which is in the public domain where anyone can use it. It is not confidential, and to impose a confidentiality-style obligation on would-be users would be a huge retrograde step and one that takes absolutism in intellectual property to new heights.

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