IP offices can’t take their business for granted in a changing world, says INTA’s CEO
Etienne Sanz De Acedo discusses the future of IP offices, the damage wreaked by counterfeiting and piracy and how IP is not just for the big corporations
“We are trying to contribute to a better society through IP,” says Etienne Sanz De Acedo, CEO of the International Trademark Association (INTA).
As he looks back on his 10 years at the helm of the global association of brand owners and professionals dedicated to supporting trademarks and complementary IP, Sanz De Acedo adds: “I have been very fortunate to lead INTA and implement change to make it more global and expand its substantive remit.”
If things had worked out differently, he would be serving out his last days at the influential lobbying organisation, whose annual conference in Singapore in May attracted 8,200 delegates.
With nominations by the twin giants of France and Germany, he was one of three candidates in the running to become executive director of the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), where he spent 15 years before joining INTA.
But it wasn’t to be. On 25 July, it was announced that João Negrão, the current president of EUIPO’s Board of Appeal had secured the role, which he will assume in October.
Commenting on the appointment at the time, Sanz de Acedo wished Negrão “all the best”, adding that he was “somewhat concerned that both the European Patent Office (EPO) and EUIPO will be led by citizens from one and the same country.” Both Negrão and EPO president António Campinos are from Portugal.
He concluded that he hoped the EUIPO would be managed with “full transparency, honesty and professionalism” and that he was “incredibly honoured” to continue to lead INTA.
And there is plenty to do.
INTA not only leads on discussions and recommendations around emerging and disruptive technologies like blockchain, NFTs, Web 3.0, ChatGPT, but it also leads on what Sanz de Acedo calls the “legacy topics”, the issues that are always relevant to brand professionals like international harmonisation, counterfeiting and piracy and brand restrictions like plain packaging.
IP offices’ future role
Discussing IP’s future direction, he says the idea that companies will continue to register rights in global IP offices on a mass scale will perhaps be “part of the past”.
Online and social media platforms are replacing the the role of IP offices, notes Sanz de Acedo. “We’re seeing more and more undertakings who are not really registering their rights with the IP offices, but just registering with the platform.”
Blockchain is increasingly being used as a way to record the priority of a right and that is being recognised by some courts. “I think that’s a development that IP offices around the world should be reflecting upon.” And organisations like INTA can contribute to that kind of reflection.
These and other changes in society mean IP offices cannot take their business for granted, he adds.
There had been a decrease in trademark filings at the EUIPO in 2022. But, he points out, there has been a fall around the world because of the pandemic, and it remains to be seen whether numbers will revert back to pre-pandemic levels.
The pandemic has also forced INTA to challenge itself. “For two to three years we were not able to have an annual meeting face to face, which is an important part of our revenue stream. This forced us to look at new revenue streams, new services for our members.”
INTA was delighted with the success of its event in Singapore in May that attracted 8,200 delegates. Every third year it holds the annual meeting outside of North America. In 2026, he is excited to be heading to the Middle East for the first time, to the booming city of Dubai with a growing interest in IP.
In May, INTA published an Anticounterfeiting Benchmarking Report, aimed at both in-house and outside counsel, that was focused on providing brand owners with a comprehensive understanding of the changing nature of the counterfeit landscape.
There is still this perception that IP is for the “big corporations, for the big multinational and that’s absolutely wrong”, Sanz de Acedo says, pointing out that as part of their operational chain, big corporations and multinationals will have SMEs and entrepreneurs supporting them which also rely on IP. Some 99% of businesses worldwide are SMEs.
While he calls for a “stronger fight against counterfeiting and piracy”, he underlines the importance of recognising the value of IP. “I am talking about IP funding, IP financing, IP monetisation, IP licensing. These are things that should be a priority, even more so in an environment where we see more and more new technologies and new players.”
INTA regularly produces white papers on hot topics like NFTs, the metaverse, and IP in outer space. It is currently working on two: one on how to manage IP during recessions and another on developing an IP right from scratch.
He says the recession topic is not just about the current economic crisis but prior economic crises and the commonality between them, and examining them to make recommendations for a future recession. He continues that companies’ in-house departments, external counsel and even IP offices could better prepare for future recessions and INTA wants to help with that.
The second white paper explores how a new IP right might be created, and what it would look like. “It might sound a little crazy but it is intellectually challenging,” he says. “That is what we want to do, we want to be a little disruptive, we want to produce food for thought for everyone. We should not forget that the product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, and we are still granting IP rights for 10 years that can be renewed, 20 years and so on.”
When it comes to ChatGPT and AI, INTA sees the technology as more of an opportunity than a challenge. “There are some issues, of course, from an IP perspective,” Sanz de Acedo notes. “And what we need to do is look at those and be able to put the word out there, particularly so that the policymakers, the legislators understand what the concerns might be, such as data privacy.”
That, of course, reflects INTA’s ongoing mission.
“What is the future of IP?” he asks. “What is the role of IP? How can we better support businesses and protect consumers? These are the questions that should keep people awake at night as IP professionals,” he adds, before joking: “But I hope that is not the case and everyone sleeps well!”
Luckily, he notes, INTA has some 35,000 members around the world who, through committee work, help to put together position papers, think tank projects and so on, to help with these kinds of discussions.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Recent years have seen diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) become a pressing concern for businesses and professional bodies. In 2020, INTA launched the Women’s LeadershIP Initiative (WLI) to address gender diversity issues in the IP space and to help women progress in their careers. Last year, a Presidential Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion published its recommendations, which included the adoption of a formal DEI policy and establishment of a DEI council.
It has also revamped its charitable organisation, INTA Foundation, to focus more on DEI and support the younger generation particularly students in the field of DEI. It works a lot on women-led initiatives to ensure there is gender parity between men and women in the field of IP.
“We make diversity a priority from all perspectives," says Sanz de Acedo. “We walk the talk, when I look at the composition of the board of directors of INTA, 60% are women. When I look at the past presidents of INTA, out of the last four presidents, three were women."
On the issue of whether INTA is actively attracting more patent attorneys, he says it is expecting more than 10,000 attendees at its annual meeting in Atlanta next year, of whom “about 1,500 to 2,000 will be patent attorneys”.
While trademark attorney and design practitioners make up the majority of INTA’s ranks, Sanz de Acedo says patent attorneys are “becoming more interested in what we are doing” because INTA is looking at new technologies like NFTs, blockchain, IP protection in outer space to name but a few.
Brands are taking a more holistic approach to IP, he observes: “The boundaries between patents and trademarks remain, but more and more you see within companies, this is combined into a global IP strategy, that is what we are reflecting at INTA.”
He concludes by praising the support of INTA’s “incredible” board of directors and team. “We have a lot of fun, but are also making a difference which makes me proud.”