A 'Frost' interview with Michael Downing?
06 August 2020
I was recently interviewed on a range of business and personal matters. It wasn't quite a Frost-Nixon moment (thankfully) but hopefully these questions might resonate with you and help you to understand how an IP attorney can be of value to you and your business.
1. What has been your biggest business challenge to date?
No real competition there – it was leaving my old firm and setting up Downing IP in 2012. I’d spent 16 years as a partner at the old firm, and that’s not something you leave behind lightly. However, I’d gradually begun to realise that some of the partners were not being as open and frank as one might expect of a business partner and patent attorney… which is not something that is easily fixable. I did try, though – my departure was a couple of years in the making, but eventually I came to the view that I had to go.
In the space of five months I had to find an office, furnish it, set up IT systems, create a brand identity and a website, let my clients know that I was moving, and generally deal with the 1,001 little things that are all totally vital to a successful business but which the fee-earning partners at the top never even realise are going on! I did it, though, and on 1 May 2012 we opened for business.
The really heartwarming part was the process of telling my clients that I was leaving… every single one asked if they could follow me to my new professional home. That vote of confidence was the wind in my sails that gave me the confidence and the energy to press on.
2. What has been your most satisfying legal case?
That’s a lot harder, there have been a couple of really engaging ones over the years. There was the late 1990s argument over steel compositions for vehicle wheels which relied on one of the hardest topics in metallurgy. I hadn’t really understood it in college but enjoyed getting into the scientific background to the invention deeply enough to run the case – afterwards my client commented that in his view there were only four people who really understood that bit of science; him, his opposite number in the case, my former Cambridge professor, and me. I’m guessing it’s now down to three, as I’ve now forgotten most of it!
The question was “most satisfying”, though, so I’m going to choose a tiny case that was my only piece of work for that client. She was an artist who created watercolour portraits of pets and show animals, some of which had become quite well-known. When a friend asked her why she had licenced her portraits to a clothing company who were embroidering hoodies with some of her better-known artworks, she came to me for help… principally because she had definitely not licenced anyone! Their lawyer claimed that the picture was not a copy and had been arrived at independently, but they changed their mind and settled after I sent them a comparison of the two images peppered with red marks identifying points of surprising similarity. I think I remember it mainly due to the timing – they paid up shortly before Christmas and my client called me back to say that they were planning a special festive celebration with the unexpected bonus!
3. Why should inventors talk to you?
Mainly because I’ll listen. I love to hear about people’s ideas, it’s the main reason I keep doing this job. Then I can enjoy creating a strategy that is tailored to you and what your business needs.
4. What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
This question makes me think of the quote from Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – facing certain death, Arthur mutters “You know, it's at times like this, […] that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young". "Why, what did she tell you?", asks his fellow traveller. "I don't know, I didn't listen”, replies Arthur.
I think the best bit of advice, though, was to always believe in the case that you are making. That’s because it works on several levels. There’s a very simple level at which it works, in that if you aren’t convinced that point is a good one, it will show, and the examiner/Board of Appeal/Court will spot that and likely see through your point. However, it can also be understood at a deeper level; if you’re not convinced of the point, then maybe you should look and see why you aren’t, and fix that. Perhaps you haven’t understood the case well enough, in which case a better understanding will help the client. Perhaps the case actually isn’t all that good, in which case it might be in the client’s interests to pursue a different approach?
5. What has been your biggest frustration during the UK lockdown?
You might know that I have a Caterham race car that I built in late 2011, and started racing in 2012. Well, all motorsport in the UK stopped dead in its tracks in late March and only restarted in July – with lots of Covid-related restrictions. This is the longest I’ve gone without a race outing, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tidied up the garage!
The race calendar restarted in early July, and to my amazement the organisers have managed to squeeze an entire year’s calendar into the remaining months! I can't justify spending a long weekend at the track every week though, so I'm planning to do just a few select races. Some people are going to be very busy though…