Kurian quits as patents office chief

Kurian quits as patents office chief

Mumbai: P.H. Kurian, the controller general of patents, designs and trademarks at India’s intellectual property (IP) office, has resigned from the key post with more than half his term left to run.

The first Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer to head the IP office, Kurian took over the assignment in February 2009 for a five-year term, but is reverting to his home cadre after just two years and four months. Kurian confirmed that he has agreed to get back to Kerala.

He had taken several initiatives to reform the IP office, which, according to experts and those who dealt with it, had been opaque in its functioning and also faced complaints of not always acting fairly.

Kurian introduced transparency in the process of clearing patent and trademark applications and granting IP rights, a function that is becoming increasingly critical as India’s integration with the global economy continues.

The decisions of the office have come under more intense public scrutiny since India signed up to the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regulations in 2005.

Industry observers, who didn’t want to be cited, said that Kurian may have ruffled feathers during his tenure with the changes he brought about, which could have prompted the early exit.

Typically, IAS officers are deputed on Central government assignments for five years, but the home state can call them back before the term is completed, provided the current employer and the officer agree.

In this case, the new Congress-led Kerala government wants Kurian back as principal secretary and he has agreed.

The ministry of commerce that oversees the IP office has already cleared the transfer. Once relieved by the appointments committee of the cabinet (ACC) at the Centre, Kurian will go back to the southern state, where he was industries secretary before moving to the IP office.

“I am waiting for the ACC’s relieving order," Kurian said on Monday.

Kurian’s departure from the IP office before completing functional reforms that he had initiated may lead to disruption, according to IP stakeholders.

The office was previously prone to controversies owing to loosely granted patents, the opaque nature of the application process, and even alleged kick-backs and favouritism. The department’s role became more prominent after India re-introduced its patent regime for food, agriculture and medicines under TRIPS.

While patents are aimed at protecting the interests of inventors, an unscrupulous grant of such rights can lead to unjustified market monopoly.

Though the number of patent grants surged from 2005 until Kurian took over, litigation also burgeoned, challenging the validity of many grants.

The patent office granted 1,911 patents in 2005 with about 140 patent examiners on its rolls. In 2009, 16,061 patents were granted while the number of examiners had dropped to less than 70.

Several of the new grants were challenged by interested parties and accessing the relevant details of such grants was not easy.

Kurian’s first key reform was digitizing the applications and grants process and making them available online to the public.

He also made the system stricter and more transparent by realigning the concerned officers and restricting unsolicited visits by applicants and patent agents to the four offices of the department across the country.

Following this, the number of patent grants came down to 6,168 in 2010.

“I had to face the wrath of many on the reduced number of grants," Kurian said.

One senior bureaucrat said the government hadn’t wanted Kurian to go. “The government did not want Kurian to leave; the exit may be his own choice," said V. Bhaskar, former joint secretary, department of industrial policy and promotion, which oversees the broader functions of the IP office under the commerce ministry.

Bhaskar quit early this month to join the Andhra Pradesh government.

The outgoing IP office chief was accorded compliments by drug makers, who often find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.

“Kurian was fair and objective while implementing the Patents Act, and he disciplined the organization," said Dilip G. Shah, secretary general, Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, an industry lobby representing the country’s top drug makers. “His exit will be a great disappointment to the industry."

Tapan Ray, director general of the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India, a foreign drug makers’ lobby, said: “Kurian has been bringing much-needed transparency to the Indian patent office, and his sudden exit surprises me."

According to Pratibha Singh, a noted IP lawyer in New Delhi, Kurian’s exit will certainly affect the transparency drive, while Prabudha Ganguly, an IP expert and leading patent agent in Mumbai, said, “The government must find an equally competent replacement otherwise it will be a disaster in the department."