Mr. Speaker, it is exciting to be here today to support the budget implementation bill and specifically the legislation establishing the college of patent agents and trademark agents. This is at subdivision D of division 7 of part 4 of the budget implementation bill.
This is an important element of the government's IP strategy. Taken as a whole, that strategy will ensure that Canada's intellectual property regime is modern and robust, and that it supports Canadian innovations in the 21st century.
Patent and trademark agents are a key component of the innovation ecosystem, as they help inventors to secure exclusive IP rights. I was the only Newfoundlander who was a patent agent at the time of my election. Although I am not practising in that area of law now, I have some pretty good information regarding the need for a college of patent agents and a college of trademark agents.
Given the rising importance of IP in the innovation economy and the central role of patent and trademark agents, it is time to have a professional oversight body responsible for maintaining the high standards that are expected of trusted advisers. As a bonus, this would address long-standing gaps in the current framework for regulatory oversight, which previously lacked clarity and transparency and was without a binding code of professional conduct. Given the importance of the profession, good safeguards here are needed to ensure that agents do the jobs they do well and have the trust of their clients and of Canadians more broadly.
While there is no evidence suggesting a large problem with agent conduct, the need for modernization is imperative now that communications with IP agents are protected by statutory privilege in the same way as solicitor-client advice. This is an extraordinary right that requires ethical guidelines to prevent its abuse.
The college of patent agents and trademark agents act would establish an independent regulator, specifically a college, for the professional oversight of IP agents in the public interest. The college would administer a licensing system to ensure that only qualified professionals are authorized to provide agent services. As an independent regulator, it would also be responsible for enforcing a code of professional conduct to ensure that IP agents continue to deliver high-quality advice.
The college would also be responsible for implementing requirements for continuing professional development to ensure that agents stay informed of the ever-evolving IP practice landscape. Ultimately, these measures would raise the bar of IP professional services in Canada.
The college would have an investigations committee to receive complaints and conduct investigations into whether or not a licensee has committed professional misconduct or been incompetent. A separate disciplinary committee would have the authority to impose disciplinary measures if it is decided that a licensee has in fact committed professional misconduct or been incompetent.
Finally, this bill also creates new offences for claiming to be a patent agent or a trademark agent, or for the unauthorized representation of another person before the Canadian patent office or the office of the registrar of trademarks. These offences are intended to serve an important consumer protection function to ensure that innovators are receiving representation from qualified, licensed agents.
I would like now to speak about the important features that have been built into the legislation to ensure that the regulation is undertaken within the public interest and with the public interest as the priority.
Careful consideration was given to ensuring that the legislation supported the public interest in a competitive marketplace of well-qualified and professional IP agents. For example, the college would be governed by a board of directors that includes public interest representatives appointed by the minister, and patent and trademark agent representatives elected by members of the college itself.
Further measures directed toward safeguarding the public interest include providing the minister with the authority to review the board's activities and, if necessary, to direct the board to undertake any action to ensure regulation in the public interest. Another measure requires the board to report to Parliament annually on its activities.
The framework for the legislation takes into account comments from stakeholders over the course of several public consultations. During these consultations, risks were identified relating to the fact that many IP agents are also lawyers. Concerns were expressed about dual regulation, that is that lawyers and agents would be subject to two potentially conflicting regulatory schemes.
In recognition of this potential for overlap, the legislation would ensure minimal regulatory conflict for lawyers who may also be agents. In addition, where appropriate, the college's investigations committee would be authorized to refer a complaint to another body that has the duty to regulate another profession, for example a law society for a lawyer.
In fact, in my experience as someone who has been regulated as an engineer, regulated as a lawyer in three different jurisdictions, and regulated as a patent agent and a trademark agent in two different countries, I appreciate the concern that might exist about overrepresentation or over-regulation, as well as the concern that might be raised by conflicts in ethical obligations.
Whereas a lawyer, for instance, may have an ethical obligation to maintain strict solicitor-client privilege, an engineer is in fact required to put the public interest ahead of that interest. Therefore, it is important to note that there can be proper and reasonable conflicts in the ethics associated with different professions.
Patent agents are there to obtain the most protection possible for their clients' inventions or the broadest scope of trademark protection for their brands. Sometimes that might conflict with another ethical obligation that might apply in a different fashion to a lawyer or an engineer.
Balancing these is important and means making sure that when patent agents wear their patent agent hats, they are regulated as patent agents, and when they wear their lawyer hats they are regulated as lawyers, and when they wear their engineer hats they are regulated as engineers. This legislation allows for that nuanced differentiation.
We also heard during consultations that specific care must be taken to safeguard privileged information. Significant measures must be in place to ensure the appropriate handling and safeguarding of privileged information and to strictly control access to such information. To do so, the legislation draws upon safeguards and processes similar to those used by provincial law societies in order to safeguard privileged information in the investigation of college members.
More specifically, privileged information can only be used for the purpose of regulating agents. Disclosing privileged information to the college will not be considered a waiver of the privilege, and the privilege will be preserved for other purposes. Those purposes could be some type of lawsuit before the courts on solicitor-client privilege or the maintenance of the confidentiality of an inventor's right to an invention for having filed before first being disclosed to the public, for instance.
The act places strict obligations on employees and directors of the college, preventing them from disclosing privileged information, and further clarifies that the government cannot use its oversight authority to access privileged information. There is a strict process of court oversight to access and contest access to solicitor-client privileged information. These were of importance to the patent bar in the development of the legislation.
From my perspective, as someone who went through the process of becoming a patent agent, I can attest to the fact that an additional element is brought to bear on a regulated profession. Sometimes professions can be regulated in such a manner as to encourage more people to join the profession, and sometimes they can be regulated in a fashion that prevents new people from entering the profession.
The fact that the United States has 100 times as many patent agents or practitioners as Canada does with only 10 times the population demonstrates that our regime for licensing patent agents has become too restrictive.
The creation of an independent college will have the extra function of aligning the college's role of growing the profession with the public's interest in having more patent agents available to help inventors spur the creation of these assets. Patent and IP assets simply do not exist if they are not filed and registered, and if professional advice is not brought to bear.
It is not like in copyright, where people create a new work and then own the rights to that work. In the patent and trademark space, it is the professionals who assist the creators or the brand makers in protecting, acquiring and preserving those rights, both at home and abroad. If that work is not done, there is no asset to protect. Canada needs probably 10 times more patent and trademark agents than it currently has in order to have the same level of asset creation as the United States. This is important in the 21st-century economy.
In conclusion, the college of patent agents and trademark agents will be responsive to stakeholder input and follow international best practices in professional regulation. Care was taken with the legislation to establish well-structured bodies to ensure proper independent oversight, with an option for the government to intervene only if necessary. The checks and balances included in the legislation will ensure regulation in the public interest.
As a whole, I would encourage all members to support the budget implementation act, including this subdivision of part 7.