Ben Buchanan, Deputy Director, Intellectual Property Office

22 March 2024

Prospect member Ben Buchanan, a Deputy Director at the Intellectual Property Office, tells us about how his stint in the IT sector shaped his current work, how he learnt on secondment by stepping out of his comfort zone and how intellectual property makes society better.

The Intellectual Property Office where I work is the government agency for granting and administering patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs. I did an engineering degree at university, where I learnt that the last thing I wanted to be was an engineer.

I had a year out doing a HND in classic car restoration, which is my real passion, and when I decided I’d better get a proper job, I identified the Intellectual Property Office as somewhere that would appeal to me and use my technical skills.

The boundaries between the law and technology really interested me. That was how I joined the Intellectual Property Office the first time around.

Ben Buchanan

I only stayed for about 18 months before I was tempted by the greener grass of the IT sector. I trained and worked as a software developer for three and a half years, when I eventually worked out that I wanted to be a software developer even less than I wanted to be an engineer!

I called up the IPO and asked if they had any jobs going? They said, well, we really need people who know something about computers…

So, to a significant extent, my route back in as a patent examiner was helped by my experience as a software developer.

A patent examiner analyses the legal and technical merits of an application for a patent. My field was computers and the software that underpins an invention. It’s an interesting and specific area of the law that is particularly contentious and very active, so I gained quite a bit of experience in my first five years back at the IPO.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed a series of development programmes and secondments to put myself in the position I’m in now. Briefly I worked leading what we called our Informatics Team, which is technology and landscape analysis, horizon scanning and that sort of thing, which was in its very early stages at the time.

I also worked in our Secretariat supporting the board of directors and the Chief Executive, which was a complete about turn, as far as my skill set was concerned.

That’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in my professional career but it’s also the opportunity I took to learn the most about governance, decision-making, risk, finance and so on, which ultimately put me in a position to apply for my current role.

For about 12 years now, I’ve been one of several Deputy Directors within the patents business area of the IPO, dealing specifically with patents and technical IP rights, where I now lead four teams of examiners, numbering about 80 people in total.

My teams focus on the technical areas of computing, AI, machine learning, electronics, streaming services and video.


My day is normally peppered with meetings. They can be one-to-ones with my direct reports, they can be wider team meetings with one of my examination teams or meetings with my peers to discuss a particular area of practice or governance.

I’m also very active in the areas of diversity and inclusion, the Government Science and Engineering Profession, and to some extent the intellectual property profession.

I’m much less hands-on, sleeves rolled up and diving into the detail these days, but I still retain a role as what’s called a Tribunal Hearing Officer — there are a number of us — who are the first point of appeal, should the examination process between the applicant and the examiner reach an impasse.

Then I’ll be required to get into the detail of both the technical issues under consideration and the legal questions at stake and come to a clear, unambiguous position – to allow the application to proceed, or decide if it should be refused.

If my decision is appealed, it would then escalate to the Patents Court and, subsequently and potentially, to the Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court.


It never ceases to amaze me what can be done with the power of a desktop PC or a laptop; or maybe it’s cloud computing that enables it, in which case that’s a further step in terms of accessing processing power that was key to the invention.

I really do enjoy seeing first hand these kinds of innovations in front of me. One of my examiners once said to me that it’s great working on stuff that you see on the shelves of Currys at Christmas.

As an example, the technology behind Microsoft Teams video calling is the kind of thing that my team will be dealing with. When you do a video call with your background blurred – how does Microsoft know to blur your background, but not your face? How it performs the edge detection and works out which part is your face and which part is the background is exactly the kind of algorithms and processing that my teams will look at. And then there’s the compression, transmission and display…

It’s a great privilege working with the teams that are responsible for analysing and taking decisions on the allowance, or otherwise, of something like artificial intelligence applications. There are so many stories about AI and its potential in the press that understanding some of the detail, and the enabling technology behind it, is really rewarding when you read about it in the papers.

Why IP matters

The IPO’s motto is ‘making life better through IP.

The very concept of intellectual property has its proponents, and its critics. There are schools of thought, which raise concerns about the effects of monopoly rights on things, such as vaccines, for society as a whole. But it is also a legitimate argument to say that without IP you wouldn’t have the same level of investment that would produce those things in the first place.

Ultimately, it’s a framework to reward and incentivise innovation. If it weren’t for IP we wouldn’t have as much creativity, theatre, television, film, and music as we do because why would people invest in it, if anybody could reuse it and profit from it?

Similarly on technology, we see firms investing, giving people jobs, earning profits and paying shareholders, but also improving society and our daily lives through the technological advances that they deliver.

As a public servant, part of what makes me come to work in the morning is the belief that I’m doing something good. I enjoy my job and I enjoy the people I work with, but I also like to think that I’m giving something back.

Through our work at the IPO, we’re making an impact that benefits everyone. It might be growing the economy, it might be saving someone’s life, it might be making someone happy, or helping their education, but, somewhere down the line, there are good things happening because of our work.

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