Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Accounting the Cost

KPMG site
One of the major worries when setting up as a solo practitioner is how to deal with the financial side. Even if you are only borrowing from yourself (or perhaps especially then) you need to keep a careful record of all transactions. My strategy was to buy some accounts software and later recruit an accountant to do the end of year accounts and tax work. I asked for recommendations, visited several firms, sent enquiries to others. It was rather hit and miss. Small business is not that attractive. (It might be different if you are in a smaller local community than the heart of London and you can network with local providers). Since then accounts packages have moved into the cloud and pay by month Software as a Service has become a popular option that feeds our just in time culture. I was therefore intrigued when I received a cold call from Big Brand Accountants KPMG promoting their service which combines everything you need in the financial way from book keeping through VAT returns and payroll to the end of year accounts and tax - all bundled into one neat monthly fee and accessible from anywhere (provided the cloud is still in the sky). Prices start at £150 per month (this year but what about next?) and depend on how much of a burden you are predicted to be!

The accounting package at the heart of it is Xero - a brand I had not heard of before. You could try the Xero software for free to see if you like its approach - but it seems to be able to deal with € and $ as well as £.

The benefit of having an accountant on board when you start should be that things get set up properly. It ought to impress prospective clients too that you are well managed and regulated even if small.  That does seem to worry some transferring clients that have been used to the apparent re-assurance of big firm providers.
Xero Direct
I am not being paid to write this and I am not a user but it certainly looks an interesting and innovative approach to the problem. The idea of having an accountant that you can call with a VAT query without risking another bill seems to address exactly the problems that some small CIPA members were having as reported during Congress.

This type of product could also be beneficial to not so solo firms too. If anyone has has experience of cloud based book keeping or dipped a toe in the water please comment. What do you see as the risks and benefits of this approach?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Small and British: are you feeling busier ...?

More work -- at last
The latest H W Fisher survey of small and medium-sized law practices in the UK reflects the fact that the economy is picking up a bit, with firms in this sector experiencing a reported turnover some 4% higher than a year previously. However, this good fortune (assuming that increased turnover = increased profit) is not spread evenly: this because the turnover of the larger firms within the legal SME sector rose by around 10%. This wouldn't seem to leave much for the smaller firms. Interestingly, litigation is said to have dropped from 36% of the surveyed firms' work to around 26%. I doubt that this would be reflected in the IP sector, where the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court's recently-spawned Small Claims track has apparently been buzzing with activity.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Professional Meeting

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon
Tomorrow (Bonfire night) there will be an Ordinary General Meeting of the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents Attorneys. The agenda is essentially a vote to allow the entry of new members. The meeting is scheduled directly after the council meeting in the hope that the necessary 10 fellows can be persuaded to stay on and tick the boxes to elect the hopeful new members. I suggested to our esteemed secretary Chief Executive that this was rather a parody of the idea of an ordinary general meeting. That was on twitter here.

The purpose of this blog is to explain what ordinary general meetings were when I first became a member and before  CIPA became a CPD points machine. Members of the profession gathered together to discuss matters of interest to the profession. This would generally be by a chaired debate with some prepared paper followed by discussion from the floor. In this way members of Council were able to learn the views of the profession. Topics on which policy needed to be formed could be debated. A certain amount of learning would take place especially if the papers were well prepared. The papers were published.

It was also important that these meetings were open to everybody. They did not require additional fees. They did not come with free beer, but members might adjourn to a local public hostelry. However now that element is all that remains and without the initial food for thought, we are just left swigging gin and discussing Christmas plans.

When voting for council members, it was always important to see how many OGM they had attended. Were they in touch with the membership?

Now it came to pass that firms of patent attorneys were less keen on their staff departing from the office to attend such early evening meetings. Gradually only unmarried partners would attend and as attendances fell off and the programme planners failed to plan programmes we have what we have now, an OGM that is simply for admitting new members.

Mr Davies would like to rewrite the Charter and bylaws so that he can admit new members without an OGM abolish OGM. Unfortunately, I don't think he understands the principle behind the original plan but he is reading my blog so kudos to him.

If we are to believe the essential truth behind other parodies of council meetings, we must begin to wonder how CIPA is a representative body.

Fortunately, there are other intellectual property organisations such as AIPPI UK that do have meetings that discuss IP policy and developments and no doubt the membership will defect to those.

The default reasons for membership belong mainly to the young who are aspiring to qualify - hence the decision to bring the informals inside the dying shell. The patent examination board and IPReg will continue but one has to doubt the viability of the body that founded them if it doesn't meet. There can be no body without its members and if there is no membership, then the officers have no authority (and no funds).

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Is a Fax Machine Essential ?

It appears that my co-blogger is planning to move office and to that end she has been busy working out what needs to be done. I am hoping that she will share with us some of the useful information she gathers in this exciting process.

She asked OHIM whether it was still necessary for representatives to provide a valid fax number for communications. She reports that they said No.

Today I had rather late instructions to file an appeal. It should have been the simplest task to enrich OHIM with 800€ from my deposit account and say that the grounds would follow later. Barely 5 minutes work really. OHIM even provide a very detailed note of how it is supposed to work. Sadly that is not how it does work, due to the delights of the OHIM website.

I really mean it
Once upon a time if you logged into your dashboard and selected a mark, it would be opened in a new tab after asking that infuriating question about whether you wanted to be told that ever again. I have lost count of how many times I have said I don't want to see that message again. That's not the bug I am concerned with.

The bug is that having arrived  in my new tab the header says I am logged in but the record says I am not. The bug seems to be temperamental as its sometimes there and sometimes not. Maybe this is due to the time I have been logged in? To me it seems just to appear to annoy me when I am trying to achieve something.

Now having got to my record there is a button to appeal but it wants me to upload the form. I am a smart bunny, I know where OHIM have hidden the link to the forms at the very bottom of the home page. You can also find a link in that very detailed note. If you are reading this because you have work to do (and a typewriter) here is the link to the Appeal Form.

OK you have the form and you download it and fill it in in Acrobat Reader. Oh no of course you cannot save it, but you can print it and scan it. Now it would be easier just to fax it but I have not got a printer and a fax to hand at the moment. I do however have a full licensed copy of Adobe Acrobat  so that should be simples. I can fill the form and save it and then attach it to the e-communication. No. I fill it and save it but when I attach it, its blank except for my signature. No information on the deposit account I want to take the fees from, no indications of the appellant and the decision. All just blank. Why? It looks just fine on my PC. I try to print it using a pdf printer but the security defeats me again and generates an error message as if I was trying to print a picture of some currency rather than spend it.

All I am doing is a standard obvious action that OHIM should have tested many times. It is months after the website was launched. They tell me how to do it in their tutorial but it does not work that way unless you are prepared to use a typewriter or a fax machine or scanner.

So Sally I am sorry they misled you but I strongly recommend you get yourself a little USB fax modem from Maplin so you can send faxes from your PC. This is the one I have and its a bit of a bore to plug it in instead of the phone but it should work (I hope) or this appeal ain't going to be filed. Just as well I don't leave things to the last day but even so post wouldn't work either.

So come on OHIM its bad enough that I must appeal but at least take my money without quite so much pain. I may cry.

Friday, 31 October 2014

He who pays the piper dresses the worst

"Does How You Dress and Look Impact Your Career?" is the title of a LinkedIn Pulse post ("A Must-Read for Jeremy") which, since I received it, has probably been received by most if not all of the readers of the SOLO IP weblog. Thanks to the growth of the social media and the increasing level of informality that attends even formal intellectual property events, I need to dress up less often and, when I do dress up, I do so less smartly.

My feeling is that there are different standards within intellectual property. On the whole, practitioners in the field of trade marks and branding tend to turn up to meetings looking pretty smart and spruce -- and those who deal with IP in the fashion sector are particularly well turned-out.  Copyright lawyers are more likely to be a lightly rumpled, couldn't-care-less version of 'smart casual', while patent folk are those who are least likely to be confused with those who practise the art of sleek, smooth professionalism.  Indeed many look as though they have just stepped outside their garden-sheds for a breath of fresh air and a chance to blink in the unaccustomed light of the sun ...

Within the different skills sets offered within IP there are divergent clothing codes too.  Patent attorney litigators and solicitors often seem better turned out than the somewhat scruffy and threadbare patent bar (do some barristers have a 'lucky suit' which they favour in court, only discarding it when it falls apart or when it has become so shiny that the judge can see his face in it?).  Those involved at the hard end of licence negotiations are dressed for the comfortable end of smart if they're sensible, since they don't know how long it will be before they get the chance to change them.

At the wrong end of the spectrum are the clients.  On the basis of "he who pays the piper calls the tune", many of them turn up looking as though they've taken their fashion cues from the Pied Piper. Or am I being unfair?

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Legal 500 or Famous Five? When the holiday option is best

Managing Intellectual Property publishes league tables for IP firms in different countries. Sole practitioners are unlikely to be mentioned. The more clients one has, the more likely it is that a number of clients will recommend one.  One practitioner is likely to have fewer clients than two -- and two are likely to have fewer clients than four or five.

A sole practitioner, no matter how effective he or she is, will be limited by the amount of work he or she can do. In addition to billable work, sole practitioners and partners in small firms will generally also spend time doing accounts, marketing and other tasks that are dealt with by dedicated staff in larger firms. Many sole practitioners do more billable work and earn better than junior partners with similar experience in a larger firm, but they still won't rank in the league tables.

In Israel, the International Business Directory, Dun & Bradstreet, ranks patent firms only by size. When they publish their annual rankings, most Israeli business papers base an article on their press release. The headline in the accompanying newspaper articles usually relates to leading firms. This means that the smaller firms, no matter how good they are, will never be mentioned and can't be leading firms (it also explains why fully or semi-retired staff members have their licences paid for by the firm so that they can play the numbers game, and why there is more than one patent attorney with Alzheimer’s that is still listed as practising to make up numbers).

I assume that Dun & Bradstreet rankings for IP firms in other countries are generated the same way and receive similar press coverage.

Established firms, including small ones, tend to work for a solid core of regular clients. One does, however, need constantly to try to bring in new clients, as existing clients do sometimes disappear. Sometimes they run out of cash. Sometimes they are taken over. Sometimes their patents all issue or are abandoned. It hardly matters why, but such clients cease to generate work and need to be replaced. In a recession, and the world seems to have been in one since about 2008, there is less work around. Existing clients often do less IP related work. New clients typically come in by recommendation, and I am not convinced that participating in international conferences and holding events necessarily works. However, I still attend conferences and hold events because it is fun.

I have a number of nice certificates showing that I have accumulated academic qualifications, and one stating that I am a licensed practitioner, and a new one each year showing that I pay my dues. However I don't have trophies and medals as a leading practitioner since directories rarely assess practitioners, but rather assess firms. I was, therefore delighted to be recognized as a Leading Practitioner by a UK based company, ACQ, that publishes a directory of leading practitioners in which I can take out a full colour advertisement for a small fee. I can also purchase a trophy with my name engraved on, or more than one (for office, conference room and mantelpiece).  It does seem a little self-indulgent to purchase such trophies and to pay for an advertisement in a magazine that no-one reads in order to leave it on one's coffee table in the waiting area. For the same money we could have a family holiday.

Are clients sufficiently gullible to be taken in by such trophies? Presumably. After all, the companies offering them have been around for a while. Someone buys their trophies. I did go into the ACQ website, and can see that there are patent firms that pay to advertise there.

Posted for Michael Factor by Jeremy

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The new approach to correspondence with the EPO earns 5 stars

Forgive me if you are already up and away with the delights of the new case management system  (CMS) from the EPO but if not here he is a brief review from a tentative user.

In the past to file electronically with the EPO you needed their stand alone on line filing application. Now this was a brilliant piece of software which I have been using since last century. In the beginning it put paid to those days of sending paper in triplicate by post or worse still using a fax machine. It was instant and incredibly over the years has been allowing us to file more and more of our day to day correspondence with not just the EPO but also our national offices and WIPO. For solo practitioners it was the most wonderful gift and its server version meant that it provided a solution for even the largest practices. In its last hurrah it has just opened up the possibility of filing a demand for examination of a PCT application (which is not yet possible on CMS). Nevertheless the constant updates were a chore and it wasn't always easy to make corporate IT departments understand what you needed.

For some time the UK IPO has adopted web filing which allows us all, whether sole inventors, corporate departments or agents of whatever size to file new applications, other forms and responses using a secure web interface. Now the EPO has decided to follow suit.

For those of us with smart cards already the Case Management System seems the best option. However there is also a web filing option (WFF) that provides for instant registration and usability. Here is the guide for that ( a modest 29 pages).

The more sophisticated CMS option has a guide too but it is 207 pages so get comfortable. First you need to tell the EPO you want to use CMS. There is a web page for doing that. Once the support email has come through you can slot your card in its reader and attempt to go to the start page by clicking on the button on this web page (see picture to the right)
. At first it kept giving me a 404 error but clicking on the EPO logo in the top left (I'm not sure what is under the logo but its worth a try for any 404 errors you get ) was the clue for getting past that one. We are now up to version 1.9 and for the non-solo readership, the release notes suggest it is now possible for one registered user to register others in their organisation.

Having got in, it is fairly intuitive to get on and fill in forms. Its a nice thing that addresses and names you set up in Demo are available when you come to do real work so you can experiment with real data. Don't throw away the on line app just yet, but this is a simpler option for everything it does. You set up your default language in the Preferences option and away you go. I was slightly disconcerted not to see English is the amazing list of filing languages but "Same as Procedural Language" works just fine.

Your PDF files have to be well behaved and as with the app you and the document need to know the number of pages there are and if you have not accounted for them all it will tell you that overlaps are not allowed.

I have not managed to make the little eyeball viewer work happily yet. Maybe it wants my PC to have a tiff viewer (it doesn't) but then I was using Firefox and I think you are probably better off in Internet Explorer.

Despite that, I have managed one live filing that has moved along so I am pretty chuffed and you can probably do the same without having to read the 207 pages but its nice to know that it and the efficient are there to help.

Do share your experiences.