Intellectual Property Awareness At Universities- Why Ignorance Is Agony?


Why universities should educate students on what IP is? Why it matters?

Let’s first lay them straight.

The numbers!
A Forbes article by  John Villasenor, mentions a survey of 60 American graduate engineering students…

  • 68% stated that they did not know “what is a trade secret?”
  • 21% did not know enough about “what is a patent?”
  • 32% were unable to answer “what is copyright?”
  • 51% could not reply to “what is a trademark?”

When this is the situation in America, we can imagine the plight in India.
When hundreds of students engaged in research don’t even know the basic knowledge of IP, how they can be expected to handle their research/inventions, unpublished data, computer code etc. that may be the result of years of effort involving lakhs of rupees.

The problem could spread beyond the university boundaries with a devastating effect which may have serious legal and financial implications.

An engineer without the knowledge of IP, who doesn’t understand trade secrets or copyrights is likely to walk away with proprietary computer code on a USB stick to a new job; inviting grave trouble for self and all parties involved.

When trade secrets slip out this way, everyone loses – the university, company that invested in their development, the engineer who took them (exposed to substantial civil and/or criminal liability), and the third party who inadvertently gets involved into misappropriation allegations.

A working understanding of intellectual property (IP) is needed to understand and manage IP issues, take informed decisions right from the onset of research till the invention and past it, how to handle day to day work without errors and know when to contact IP/TT experts.

IP management by faculty, students and staff need not be time-consuming. Neither you are expected to become an expert in IP management and technology transfer. Just sufficient awareness is needed so that you can use the resources available without issues and optimise your opportunities.

Why IP & Technology Transfer Awareness?

a)Faculty and staff members

Lack of basic information on IP and technology transfer issues can result into problems on part of the faculty and staff impacting the directions they provide to undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and/or technicians involved in the research.

b)Graduate Students, Postdoctoral Fellows

Basic IP training is essential (irrespective of whether your future career lies in government, academia or industry) in order to know how should you proceed with your research. Your guide/supervisor will not be able to reverse the effects of IP errors you make.

Results Of Lack of IP knowledge

  • Mistakes, misjudgments in handling IP issues can result in difficulties in protecting a discovery or licensing an invention.
  • May result in complete loss of opportunity to protect an invention or narrow down the scope of protection obtained.
  • Reduced or total loss of opportunity to market a discovery/invention.
  • Incur liability even due to an inadvertent infringement of IP protected by others.
  • Affects documentation of work with appropriate recordkeeping methods (notebooks, films, electronic information, and beyond), proper use of materials/ methods originating elsewhere.
  • Hinders executing legally binding agreements, and publicly disclosing research results.
  • Poses difficulties in dealing with collaborators outside the university.
  • Standard rules directing the use of copyrighted materials in publications, teaching, and research exist. University libraries must have all these information and students/faculties as well. Copyright infringement issues will come up if these are not followed.
  • Using protected materials (which vary widely depending on the field) like vectors in genetic engineering, enzymes, reagents and other supplies in the laboratory or protected inventions of others, computer programs etc. without permission and understanding the FTO(Full Freedom To Operate) may invite serious legal issues.
  • Often the legal and proper use of protected inventions may require a formal agreement or license with the inventor. Ignorance could involve license violation and legal consequences.

(Note: Examples of FTO issues are common in universities. Be aware of materials or methods that can be used for research purposes only. Likewise, it is important to know the limitations too.).

Managing the IP issues though sometimes complicated, management of these problems can be done efficiently, reducing time-waste, resource and energy waste.

In fact, by obtaining more patents and then licensing them to industries, universities can boost revenues and speed up introducing the results of their research program in the market. This would benefit schools, companies, and people.

Universities, therefore, need to pull up sleeves and prepare the graduates to be productive citizens adding to the innovation economy. That is only possible by giving more attention to IP education.

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