Intellectual Property Awareness at Universities: Why Ignorance is not Bliss

Recently, I conducted an informal survey of graduate engineering students at UCLA, where I teach, to assess intellectual property (IP) awareness. The results highlight the challenges of promoting and protecting IP in American universities and technology companies, and illustrate why universities need to increase their efforts to educate students on what IP is and why it matters.

First, the numbers: Of the approximately 60 graduate engineering students who completed the survey, 68% stated that they did not know enough to answer the question “what is a trade secret?” 21% stated that they did not know enough to answer the question “what is a patent?” The percentages of students unable to provide an answer to “what is copyright?” and “what is a trademark?” were 32% and 51% respectively.

It would be unfair to blame the students themselves for these statistics. After all, they follow programs of study designed largely by university faculty members. If we require these students to spend hundreds of hours learning the finer points of one particular discipline of engineering, yet decline to ask them to spend even one single hour learning the basics of IP, we shouldn’t be surprised when many of them can’t explain what a trade secret is.

This problem is even more pressing now that many cash-strapped universities are making IP a key focus of efforts to more effectively leverage their research output. By obtaining a greater number of patents and then licensing them to industry, universities hope to both boost revenues and speed the introduction of the results of their research into the market. In theory, this will benefit universities, companies, and the broader public. But the success of this endeavor relies on the ability of university researchers – who are very often graduate students – to recognize potentially patentable inventions and take the steps necessary to protect them by initiating and participating in the patent prosecution process. The survey results suggest that a key link in this chain may be broken.

At all of the University of California campuses (not just at UCLA), graduate students hired to perform research are required to sign a document [PDF] acknowledging their “obligation to promptly report and fully disclose the conception and/or reduction to practice of potentially patentable inventions to the University authorized licensing office.” Student researchers at many other universities sign similar forms. Having these signed patent forms on file keeps university attorneys happy. But if tens of thousands of students engaged in research projects in American universities lack even the most basic knowledge about IP, how reliably can they expected to “promptly report and fully disclose” their patentable inventions? And how carefully can they be expected to handle unpublished data, computer code, and research paper drafts that might represent the results of many years and many millions of dollars of effort by a large research team?

The problems caused by lack of IP awareness also reach well beyond universities, sometimes to devastating financial effect. Take trade secrets, which are a form of IP critical to almost all technology companies. An engineer who doesn’t understand trade secrets and the obligations that accompany them is far more likely to walk out the door with proprietary computer code on a USB stick when he or she moves to a new job. Ignorance, of course, is not an excuse for trade secret theft. However, it contributes to a theft rate that is drastically underreported and almost certainly at epidemic levels. When trade secrets walk out the door, everyone loses – the company that invested in their development, the engineer who took them and who stands exposed to substantial civil and/or criminal liability, and third party recipients who could become embroiled in misappropriation allegations.

Universities need to do a better job at preparing their graduates to be productive citizens of the innovation economy, and that includes giving more attention to IP education. In particular, graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines should receive instruction on the nature, purpose, and protection of IP. This doesn’t mean turning them into patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret specialists. But it does mean ensuring that each of them receives at least a modest amount of training regarding their IP rights and obligations. One good way to start: All universities should require their STEM graduate students to participate in a short, interactive, web-based training session on “IP Basics” at the beginning of their first year of study. In addition, STEM faculty members should more proactively incorporate IP concepts in their mentoring of graduate student researchers.

Opponents of integrating formalized IP training into graduate STEM programs will likely argue that we can’t afford to introduce further complexity into curricula that are already packed with requirements.  But, can we really afford not to increase IP awareness? Each year, American universities are sending thousands of newly minted M.S. and Ph.D. scientists and engineers into the workforce, many of whom have received little or no instruction regarding the nature of the IP system and their role in it. Given the importance of intellectual property in the national and global economy, there’s no excuse for not giving it more emphasis in our university graduate programs.