February 4, 2023

Today, the US economy is largely driven by intangible innovations. From content creators on TikTok to the metaverse and artificial intelligence, the value generated by individuals and companies does not exist in a fixed form. Who will ultimately benefit? Those who develop an understanding of how to use intellectual property to take ownership of what they invent and build have a clear advantage.

Unfortunately, a recent study confirms what anyone who believes in the patent system already suspects: Most people don’t understand what intellectual property is, let alone how to use it to start and grow a business. Of 1,000 Americans, only 1 in 5 could correctly define a patent and a copyright, and even fewer could correctly define a trademark, reports the United States Intellectual Property Alliance.

This is concerning, as innovation is a well-known driver of sustainable economic growth and prosperity, and intellectual property plays a key role in facilitating innovation.

Nor is it surprising. Most students don’t need to learn about patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets at any point during grade school. Even elite business schools don’t require their students to learn about intellectual property. And while intellectual property is a tool for business, it is reported almost exclusively from a legal perspective, with the use of jargon making understanding an already complex subject even more challenging.

Here are five strategies to boost the innovation ecosystem by making intellectual property education more accessible.

1. Bring Intellectual Property to Earth. Without being situated in the context of a product or service that people recognize and love, intellectual property can seem inert, esoteric and, quite frankly, boring.

Almost every day on Twitter, George Mason University law professor Adam Mossoff shares a short story about an invention that changed history through an image of a patent drawing. He adds a bit of context about why the invention was a significant improvement and/or the impact it had.

By highlighting patented inventions that have become beloved and important products in an easy to understand and widely accessible way, he makes intellectual property relevant and exciting.

2. Stop selling fear. Will a patent prevent someone from stealing an invention? Probably not, given how difficult it has become these days for someone without deep pockets to enforce their intellectual property rights against an infringer. While this perspective is incomplete at best, it’s still the perspective you read online over and over again. This is a disservice to the creative community.

Inventors are already paranoid. Filing patent applications out of fear will not help them become more successful. On the other hand, if inventors became more successful, it would certainly lead to greater respect and awareness of intellectual property.

3. Emphasize what intellectual property can do for individuals instead. Everyone is self-interested. They want to know, what’s in it for me? Intellectual property becomes important when it is seen as a means to effect positive change – not just as a way to prevent something bad from happening. For example, patents can be used to further business goals such as raising money, securing a licensing deal, and building your team.

4. Hire storytellers to show how intellectual property is being used to commercialize important new products and services. Among intellectual property advocates, much is told and little shown. You hear the same clich├ęs at conferences and webinars. It is clear that not everyone is convinced that intellectual property is essential for innovation. Instead of assuming that the benefits of patents are so obvious that they need no explanation, a lot of effort should be put into telling intellectual property success stories.

This won’t be easy. These stories are inevitably complex given the time it takes to commercialize new technologies, the sheer number of people involved, and the intersection of business, law, science, and finance.

5. Create and distribute learning resources that focus on strategies for bringing new ideas to life, not on intellectual property itself. Many resources explain what a patent is and how to get one. There are far fewer who teach creative people how to use intellectual property to achieve their goals, such as helping others and making a living.

Essentially, to raise awareness of intellectual property, intellectual property should be viewed as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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