IP in the press

Published: 5 November 2010
By: Peter Prowse

The following media coverage report on the latest IP news stories is from the October 2010 issue of the CIPA Journal.

Editorial archaeology: unearthing the origins of a modern myth

Electronic media have brought blistering speed and universal reach to the ability of the printed word to record and spread news, rumour and myth. No sooner does CIPA post a press release on its website than its contents are being dissected and challenged by eager, erudite and inquisitive readers from as far away as Barnet and beyond.

Jeremy Phillips – known to many CIPA Journal readers as one of the sharpest pens (and brains) behind the IPKat – tore himself away from his holiday on 27 September to challenge an assertion (quite justifiably) in a CIPA press release announcing a visit to London by a delegation of Japanese patent attorneys:

A study by the Japanese Trade & Industry Ministry – MITI [or METI, as the Japanese now call it] – in the 1980s apparently concluded that 54% of the world’s most important inventions were British. [The IPKat has never seen the MITI report and wonders whether an English version of it exists. He has, however, heard this figure, sometimes inflated to anything up to 75%, cited as evidence that the Japanese have simply stolen and successfully commercialised vast swathes of British innovation – a proposition which the Kat feels cannot be supported by evidence].

The MITI report had been referred to so often in the media over the years that anybody involved in innovation, science and technology knew it to be a fact. Just try using a search engine such as Google and you will come up with any number of articles, blogs, bulletin boards and chat rooms, all referring to it, although with certain statistical inconsistencies. Steve Pope of Bristol claimed that reading the MITI report prompted him to write a book on British inventiveness, according to the Bristol Evening Post on 18 August 2009:

When former secondary school teacher Steve Pope set about writing his new book, So That’s Why They Call it Great Britain he had no idea just how significant Bristol’s role has been in giving the world significant inventions and innovations.

Steve was inspired to write the book after reading a report by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry – a Japanese governmental organisation – which found that more than 40% of the major discoveries during the past 50 years came from the UK.

Even the BBC referred to it in a news item on 3 June 1999, quoting the then Chairman of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, Paul Ambridge (who mysteriously morphs into Mr Armitage part way through the piece):

Mr Armitage said that the Japanese equivalent of the Department of Trade and Industry, MITI, has reported that 55% of the world’s inventions over the past century have come from British ideas – and that billions of pounds are lost to the UK plc coffers every year as ideas are taken overseas.

With such eminent authorities quoting the Japanese report, it may seem almost sacrilegious to question its authenticity. But we could not leave the IPKat’s query unanswered, so we set out to track down a copy of the original report.

The IPO (when it used to be the plain old Patent Office) had referred to the MITI report in the early 1990s, so presumably they had a copy? Um, no they didn’t. In fact, Head of Marketing Lawrence Smith-Higgins was prepared to offer a modest prize to anybody who could track one down.

Intensive research that would have taken weeks before the arrival of the World Wide Web (invented by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee) eventually led to an article in the New Scientist, written by David Budworth and published on 10 April 1986, under the iconoclastic headline The making (and breaking) of a myth: bad news for Britain. This looked promising.

You can see the article in full on the Internet, by using Google Books to search for the 10 April 1986 issue of New Scientist, then scrolling to page 70.

David Budworth appears to have done his homework – much more thoroughly than the scores of people who have continued to perpetuate the MITI report myth for the past quarter century. According to his painstakingly researched article, there was a report from the Science and Technology Agency of Japan, a summary of which was published (in English) in 1981 by Japan’s Foreign Press Centre. The Japanese report was itself based on a survey conducted for the National Science Foundation in the US. The erroneous references to a ‘MITI’ report appear to have been introduced by the Sunday Times in 1985, reporting on a Bow Group Memorandum that drew on the 1981 Japan Foreign Press Centre story.

So there we have it. Yes, there was a survey. It did show that Britain was quite good at ‘radical innovations’; the survey was reported by the Japanese Science and Technology Agency, picked up by the Bow Group and then misreported in the Sunday Times.

Lawrence Smith-Higgins says that the reward – an IPO-branded key fob (thanks to the budget cuts, now a limited edition collector’s item) is on its way to Chancery Lane. But he has lobbed us another challenge: where can we find the evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that ’80% of technical information available from patent databases is not available from any other source?’

Answers please (not on a postcard) to PeterProwse@cipa.org.uk.

Peter Prowse

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