We talk to World Trademark Review about the power of APIs


This is an extract from an editorial written by our CTO Thomas Brattli for World Trademark Review  – you can read the full article here


Trade mark registries have changed a lot over the last century. Today, anyone can search the UKIPO in a matter of seconds. It’s hard to believe that less than 30 years ago the same search would have meant travelling to London in person to leaf through decades worth of gazettes.


Every attorney has their own experiences of the registries and their own opinions about what still needs to be done. Some countries have made enormous strides in creating user-friendly databases. Some have most definitely not.


But there is another way to look at the registries. Those of us who work in legal technology are interested in the underlying software that makes them work. When we talk about registries, we’re thinking of the databases themselves: how that digital information is organized and how it is accessed.


Traditionally, this is the point in the conversation where everyone else tries to think of a polite excuse to leave the room. But that’s starting to change. Legal technology is booming like never before, and there’s a new generation of IP lawyers coming to the fore, one which both embraces and expects technical innovation.


What changes would a technologist like to see? Unsurprisingly, quite a few. Just as attorneys strive for standardization across different registries, we’d like to see normalization of the databases themselves. Beyond that, there are any number of features that would make life easier for those developing IP software.


But there is one idea it’s worth explaining in detail. Because, while it would be good news for developers, it also has the potential to fundamentally change the working life of trade mark attorneys.


What is an API?


An API, or application programming interface, is a way of opening up your software. In essence, it allows different programs to “talk” directly to each other.


You see examples of APIs every day. Next time you’re browsing the contact page of a website, for example, check their map. There’s a good chance they’ve embedded Google Maps.This is because Google Maps has an API; developers building a new website or piece of software can incorporate functions from Google Maps directly into their project.


What we would like to see is an API for trade mark registries. Naturally, this is an ideal scenario, in which other issues have been solved, but the goal would be the frictionless flow of information from one system from another.


This means that developers making software for trade mark attorneys could make it “speak” directly to different registries.


It may sound like a small change, but don’t be fooled; the implications are enormous.


A Smarter Way to Practice Trade Mark Law


One of the biggest changes would also be the simplest: the amount of time saved.


Take filing a new application for example. If developers could make use of an API, attorneys could file new applications from their desktop, without any need to re-format their data. In fact, they could submit thousands of applications at once, with the click of the button.


Consider the total number of trade mark applications made each year. In the UK alone, we estimate over five hundred working days are lost to the process each year, and that’s assuming each application is submitted online and completed in under five minutes.


This time has a real cost. It’s time that cannot be spent doing other work, the sort which requires attorney’s experience and judgement. There’s also the added risk of human error if you’re copying and pasting data from your records onto an online form. With an API, the data from your records would be instantly submitted to the registry.


And that instant communication could go both ways. A notification from the registry could appear as a notification inside your trade mark management software, rather than as a PDF attached to an e-mail.


Again, this may sound like a small change, but it has important practical implications. The chance for human error (and who hasn’t failed to see an urgent e-mail in an overflowing inbox?) would be massively reduced. Managing a portfolio would consequently become that much less stressful, and providing a first-rate service to clients that much easier.


But we can go further. Perhaps the most fundamental change would be this: consistent data. If we were all using data direct from the registry, the nature of a portfolio would change. There would be no need to update your portfolio, because your portfolio would update itself.


Let’s put that into a practical example. An attorney talks to a client about a new trade mark. The attorney can perform a clearance search immediately, as most trade mark management systems now include this feature as standard.


The attorney then notes down the details of the trade mark, and submits an application with the click of a button, using the records as they are. The results of that application then appear as an action item inside the trade mark management software.


This process is the same whether it’s one attorney dealing with one mark, or a firm dealing with hundreds of thousands of marks. The details of each mark, including notifications about oppositions or renewals, are constantly being updated from the registry.


In essence, the trade mark attorney spends his or her time on the work that requires professional experience or human judgement. The other work, the tedious, time-consuming work, does itself.


The Current State of Play


The good news is that some registries are making important steps in the right direction. The major registries in the Western World allow users to search online and look up the full history of a trade mark. Many also allow you to make an application online.


The leader in the field is the New Zealand trade mark registry, IPONZ. IPONZ has  developed an impressive API for registered users, allowing developers to build software that interacts directly with the registry.


The bad news is that New Zealand is still very much the exception rather than the rule.


It’s important to understand that no matter how usable a website is, there’s no substitute for an API. Take e-filing. A few years ago, we were trying to deal with a simple problem. Our client, a legal services firm, had to process hundreds of applications every month.


These were all for the UKIPO, a registry which has made great strides in improving usability and allows online filing. Unfortunately, when you added up the man-hours spent manually inputting the information on the website, the whole process was grossly inefficient.


Without an API there was simply no way for us to speed it up. So, we tried to work around the problem.


By using a peculiarity in a previous edition of Internet Explorer, we were able to create a sort of auto-filer. It mimicked the actions of a human user, opening up the right page, pasting the right information into the right fields, and submitting the application.


The results were mixed. Yes, we managed to save some valuable time. The problem was that the UKIPO website, like most websites, is not designed to be used this way. If we were to try it now, registry websites might well throw up obstacles like CAPTCHA check boxes, which are designed to guard against malicious activity. Unlike an API, websites are designed for humans, and humans aren’t supposed to work that fast.


So, it’s clear we need APIs. The questions is, when can we expect them?


Moving Towards Open Data


It’s hard to put a date on something like this. Aside from technical issues, there are questions about how registries used to charging for updates would have to adapt their business model.


More than that, though, it would be a big cultural change. The trade mark sector is already miles ahead of other areas of law when it comes to embracing technological innovation, but an API would require a new attitude towards data. For those who have spent their careers maintaining the registries, talk of “open data” is, perhaps understandably, a little daunting.


This isn’t limited to IP law. Similar conversations are occurring in almost every profession one can think of. The Open Data Institute, brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, was established in 2012 for just this reason.  Currently, one of the ODI’s focuses is the finance sector, exploring how increased access to data could increase competition and improve the consumer experience.


The trade mark sector is extremely well placed to take advantage of this new attitude. There are hurdles to be overcome, but I predict you’ll be hearing much more about APIs in the coming years.


The next and most crucial step is convincing all stakeholders, including the registries themselves, that no one is going to lose out. At LawPanel, this is one of the key issues we’re looking forward to discussing at INTA 2018. It may well be that INTA can facilitate this process, perhaps starting with a workshop during the Annual Conference.


For now, the main goals are to encourage dialogues between registries and users, and between IPONZ and registries which are currently considering developing their own API. In the age of disruptive innovation, building a consensus around these questions is vital.


From a technological point of view, though, the case remains clear. If and when trade mark registries start building APIs, the entire trade mark sector stands to benefit enormously. We are bombarded with new acronyms every day, but for trade mark attorneys, ‘API’ is one to take very seriously indeed.

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