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Career Advice

What your students need to know about intellectual property

Teaching IP basics.


If you’re a graduate student, getting an offer to work in a private-sector laboratory can be an exciting opportunity. You sign the paperwork and dive right into your work. But what happens if you make a discovery in that lab? Who owns that idea – you or the company? Did the paperwork specify this? And what exactly is the difference between a trademark and a patent? Knowing your rights when it comes to intellectual property is extremely important, whether you’re working on your own, in a university lab or for a company.

In 2006, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, or CIPO, conducted a study at several institutions and found that many Canadian universities weren’t offering enough information or education when it comes to intellectual property. After doing 44 interviews with people working in campus technology transfer offices and with professors, CIPO decided to develop a series of case studies that would help professors teach their students about some of the situations they might eventually find themselves in.

“We put together a team of academics from different universities, who worked with CIPO to develop the case studies,” explains Suzanne Pellerin, a CIPO business development and partnership officer and project manager for the case studies team. “Together they came up with eight stories, all with learning objectives, as well as teaching notes.” Professors may either present the cases studies themselves or ask a facilitator to come to their class and give a general overview of intellectual property, as well as discuss one of the case studies.

The case studies are meant to get students thinking about issues like trade secrets, patents, trademarks, copyright and industrial design. CIPO presentations are coupled with a brief overview of what each of the terms means.  As Chris Fitz-Hardy, a CIPO patent examiner, said during a presentation to a University of Ottawa biotechnology class, “We’re not trying to make you all experts on IP. We’re here to make you aware, so that when you enter a job, you at least have the basic knowledge of IP and you know where to go if you need further clarification.”

One case study, for example, recounts the story of Samantha Chang, a first-year engineering student who gets a summer job working in an engineering research laboratory at a university. The lab is doing contract research for a private-sector company. While on the job, she discovers a solution to a problem the lab had been tackling for the company. The controversy begins when the company goes to file a patent for the idea. Is the idea Samantha’s or the company’s? Since she is not an employee, nor a graduate student, what rights does she have? It’s questions like these that students may not consider because they’re excited just to have a summer job at all.

Illimar Altosaar, a professor of biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at the University of Ottawa, says, “I think this sort of thing should be mandatory for all students in all disciplines.” He has been incorporating education about patents into his biotechnology course since 1978.

Dr. Altosaar says he is surprised, and gratified, by the level of interest from students. “I think it’s great that they want to learn about this stuff – and they should!”
The 2006 CIPO study found that in Canada, the amount of time spent on instruction directly related to IP issues is minimal. “The average appears to be a one-to-two-hour lecture within the context of a more comprehensive course, often with a business focus,” the study states.

Ms. Pellerin says the study looked at 56 institutions, of which 44 offer some kind of instruction about intellectual property (not necessarily in every discipline); 12 offer no instruction whatsoever.

“Once we realized there was a need, we then identified the disciplines that would benefit from IP training and that could easily incorporate the subject matter into the curriculum,” she says. CIPO identified engineering, business, industrial design and the hard sciences as disciplines that offer almost no courses on intellectual property, yet need them.

If you would like to start incorporating IP into one of your courses, visit the CIPO website. There you will find a summary of all of the case studies available to professors, an executive summary of the 2006 study, and information on patents, copyright, trademarks and industrial design.

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  1. Nazi Torabi / January 19, 2012 at 10:07

    Dear Ms. Siebarth,

    I am a medical librarian at the University of Western Ontario. I have been reading your column on “surviving grad school” and “career advice” for some times now. In this issue, you wrote about IP and it made me think that there are many other areas that students should receive a more formal training. One of those areas is library resources, literature searching, and copyright. As an academic librarian, I can tell that not all students are familiar with the services that their librarians can provide to them. We are spending huge amount of money to provide access to information as seamless as possible. However, the library resources are under use at so many levels.

    Only when faculty and librarians work collaboratively, we can make students aware of the library resources and services. I am wondering if you will consider writing something about this topic in your column. I would be more than happy to share my ideas about “What your students need to know about using the library effectively”.

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