Understanding IP Matters: IP in the Classroom — What Entrepreneurs and Students Need to Learn Today

Many people do not understand what intellectual property rights mean, let alone how to use them. This is at least partly due to the absence of intellectual property rights in the classroom. Few undergraduate students learn about IP as part of their required or elective coursework. When IP is taught, it is typically approached from a legal as opposed to business or entrepreneurial perspective — think case law.

IP strategy, on the other hand, is largely absent from university departments that are likely to generate new ideas, including engineering, business, art, and medicine. As a result, many creators are unaware that they can use the intellectual property system to help capture the value of what they create — and in the process, benefit themselves, their affiliation and others.

To learn about the current state of IP education, Bruce Berman interviewed two longtime university IP educators for Episode 9, Season 2 of his podcast “Understanding IP Matters.” They explore how IP education has evolved, who is doing it, and the tension between the business and the legal side of teaching IP.

Ruth Soetendorp has been teaching college students about IP rights for more than 30 years. She is a professor emerita at Bournemouth University in the UK, where she taught law and is the the associate Director of Centre for IP Policy & Management at the business school.

James Conley is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Inventors and a clinical professor of technology at Northwestern University, serving on the faculty of both the Kellogg School of Management and the McCormick School of Engineering.

Key Responses 

There’s this hostility to IP rights on the part of creators and even the public. What do you attribute that to?

Ruth Soetendorp: “I think the hostility is there firstly because most people don’t perceive the intellectual property right as something they can have for themselves without having to go through the agency of an intellectual property advisor. [Intellectual property] is tied up with law. From my perspective working with business studies students rather than law students, there’s a built-in aversion to law — a fear of it. It needs demystifying in order to make the intellectual property aspect more accessible.”

Lawyers need to learn intellectual property law precisely because they’re going to practice. But business executives and creators need to learn how to use the IP system. What’s your experience with that difference?

James Conley: “When we train the students of the arts — and here I’m not speaking from experience, I’m just imagining it based on what I know about similar programs here in the United States— we’re training them to add value: Be creative, do something different. The curriculum is focused on making them generative. What we’re not doing is teaching them how to capture the value that they have added. I think we need to focus on, within education, adding that bit about capturing the value.”

Ruth Soetendorp: “They’ve also got to understand and internalize, integrate that for themselves — that value is something they’re interested in. You know, it’s difficult to face a group of people who will listen with curiosity, but can’t quite see the value added as being relevant to them.”

Do you see an increase in teaching IP law in other faculties?

Ruth Soetendorp: “I’ve seen it, but not as much as I would like…. I work with undergraduates and I work with postgraduates, and that was really a coming together of enthusiasts. Someone saw me as being an enthusiast and responded. Getting that to travel across to other universities is slow. What you’ve got more of is people in a law faculty teaching IP law who are gradually being discovered and sought out.”

James Conley: “I started in the engineering school; then I made my way to the business school. Each and every university has its own governance challenges and contexts…. At Northwestern, it turns out that the budget of the business school is completely independent of the budget of the central administration. So, we can experiment a lot more here than the medical school and all these other schools that are governed by the central administration.

I went to the place where I had more flexibility with funds, and then I could experiment more. Now, with this flexibility, let’s do something for the medical school. Let’s do something for the engineering school. Let’s do something in conjunction with the law school. I had to find a great partner; in my case it was Clinton Francis, who’s a distinguished professor of law at Northwestern.

He said, James, we’re going to do this together. We’re going to figure out how to make this topic — not just the case law, interpreting the doctrine, but the actual use of it. How does this become more powerful in a negotiation? How does this become more powerful in extending your advantage to wholly new market opportunities?

That bit I did in conjunction with the lawyers, but then I had to translate it into the language of the physicians, the language of all the PhD students of the university who I also teach, the language of the engineers…. Once that translation was done, the courses took on the life of their own.”

More Highlights

Listen to the entire episode to learn about:

  • The strategies they use to make intellectual property relevant and interesting to young people
  • The relationship between intellectual property, self-esteem, and agency
  • And what’s on the syllabuses of their IP courses.

“The important thing in all of intellectual property is you are doing something from an informed basis.” — Ruth Soetendorp

“In the United States, if you’ve come to a university, you’ve spent a tremendous amount of money. It’s a big investment. What you should come away with is your own individual ability to act — and, in fact, become an owner. An owner of something that will make a difference on so many different levels.” — James Conley


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Join the Discussion

One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Lab Jedor]
    Lab Jedor
    April 12, 2023 11:35 am

    “… there’s a built-in aversion to law — a fear of it.”

    I am not sure if it is “built-in.” I doubt it. And good luck with “demystifying” our IP laws. The more I know about our IP system, the less I want to get involved with it.

    I think it is more of young educated people factually observing Patent and IP Law and how it works against young start-ups. IP Law currently doesn’t help you to start a business.

    IP Law is a Sport of Kings and they are not Kings yet.