Intellectual property is a tool for creative people to share their ingenuity with the world, and be compensated for it. Patents, trademarks, copyright, and trade secrets enable people to claim ownership over and invest in what they invent, make, and build. Intellectual property is relevant to each of us, because the only way to solve humanity’s pressing problems is by empowering people with ideas to step up to the plate.
Unfortunately, few people outside of the innovation ecosystem understand the value of intellectual property. Lack of intellectual property education is widespread among every type of educational institution. While the K-12 invention education movement has made admirable strides, not even elite business schools require their students to learn about intellectual property. People who are aware of what intellectual property is still express uncertainty about how it works.
Part of this problem stems from the disconnect between how intellectual property is defined legally and how it actually functions in the context of business. Unfortunately, much of the information you can find about patents online is dry, boring, and difficult to understand.
In reality, how intellectual property is used to transform ideas into products and services that benefit others is dynamic, complex, and fascinating. No two invention journeys are exactly the same. There is much to be gained by studying these stories, including commonalities and takeaways about how to become successful, which every innovator wants to know.
Recently, several organizations have risen to the challenge of demystifying intellectual property, situating it within an entrepreneurial context, and expanding our understanding of who is considered an innovator.
For example, the Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property — the non-profit founded by billionaire surgical inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson — just released a new series of case studies embedding the use of intellectual property within the stories of real-world business ventures. (Full disclosure: I contributed one case study to the series.) Case studies like these are particularly effective because storytelling is such a powerful tool for teaching. Everyone loves stories — and people actually remember them.
Michelson IP has been creating and distributing free high-quality educational resources about IP for teachers and students for some time now. More than 20,000 people have taken its course on Udemy. The Intangible Advantage, a nearly 400-page text book executive-edited by former USPTO Director David Kappos, is available to be downloaded in numerous forms for free.
“All of the great companies today like Facebook, Amazon, and Uber were founded with intangible assets. If you’re building a business around an idea, you need to educate yourself about the intellectual property system, because that’s how you capture value,” explains Michelson.
Another leader in the effort to make the innovation ecosystem more democratic and inclusive is the non-profit Center for Intellectual Property Understanding. In the first season of his new podcast, “Understanding IP Matters,” CIPU founder Bruce Berman explored how intellectual property intersects with digital culture, art, and commerce. CIPU is also responsible for creating IPBasics, a website that uses examples of well-known products, brands, companies, and artists to explain what intellectual property is.
“The more I learn about how IP rights function in business and society, the more I realize how relevant they are to leveling the playing field. Successful companies should not see this as a threat,” Berman says.
Doing investor relations for intellectual property firms over three decades, he learned that juries did not know much about patents. Most investors, educators, and entrepreneurs he met knew little to nothing about how intellectual property worked or who it benefited either.
Despite the fact that intangible goods account for approximately 90 percent of the value of S & P 500 companies today, intellectual property still isn’t on the balance sheet in any meaningful way, he points out.
“While independent invention is the hallmark of innovation in America, intellectual property is often abused and misvalued,” Berman said. “There is a great need to make key audiences aware of IP rights, their purpose, and whom they benefit.”
Since the pandemic, the United States Patent & Trademark Office has significantly stepped up its educational programming. Each month, it hosts dozens of free virtual events covering a wide range of topics related to IP, from winemaking to blockchain technology. It has created ongoing opportunities for independent inventors to engage with leaders at the USPTO directly.
The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation continues to do a phenomenal job of expanding our understanding of who an innovator is. “Innovative Lives,” for example, is an ongoing program that dives into the histories of highly inventive people who are less known than they should be.
I have been writing about how to use intellectual property to fight to get paid for 15 years. In my opinion, the best way to make intellectual property more relevant and accessible to a wider audience is by explaining in great detail how it can be used to commercialize new products and services.
Strategies for bringing ideas to impact are in high demand — and it’s not only independent inventors who need this information. A recent survey of women in academia with innovation and entrepreneurship experience published by the journal of the National Academy of Inventors revealed that their number-one request was for more training.
“The most frequently referenced topic in the open response questions was the need for training on commercialization, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship related topics,” the report states.
The main reason the women engaged in their university’s innovation ecosystem in the first place? Their desire to see their research applied in the real world. Inventors don’t invent to get rich, but they’d certainly like to make a living doing what fulfills them.
Intellectual property ownership has a specific role to play in supporting agents of change. If inventors and creators of intellectual property were more successful overall, there would be a lot more of them.
Stephen Key is a member of the Communications Committee of the Center for Intellectual Property Understanding.