What college students learn about IP

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a comment yesterday called Intellectual Property: Valuable to Every Discipline, arguing that colleges and universities should provide more curricular offerings to teach students in a range of fields about copyright, patent, and trademark. I expected it to annoy me and it didn’t disappoint. The author, John Villasenor, describes IP as a set of potential costs and benefits to employers, emphasizing the importance of understanding (and not violating) the ownership rights of companies, as well as developing the ability to file patents successfully.

Villasenor focuses on the lack of formal instruction about IP available to students outside of law schools, but in doing so, he overlooks the very real lessons that college kids are learning about copyright, patent, and trademark every day. They learn all about the illogic and greed inherent in the copyright system from the content industry; while the RIAA may have stopped its mass filesharing lawsuits in the late 2000’s, the MPAA and others in the film industry continue to sue students for using bit torrent. They learn about how the patent system stifles creativity and thwarts innovative new companies when Elon Musk’s decision to open up all of Tesla’s patents makes it to the front page of Reddit. And their very own universities teach them plenty about trademark when those universities deny student groups permission to use the school mascot on t-shirts the administration disapproves of.

College students know more about IP than Villasenor gives them credit for, but that knowledge reflects the problematic reality of our broken copyright, patent, and trademark systems, rather than the shiny, corporate version he wants to teach them. I’m all for offering courses in which students study and learn about IP. The difference is that I want students to learn not just how to operate successfully within the system we have, but to question that system, identify its flaws, and think about how we might move towards something better.