Tuesday 7 April 2009

Research circles, communities of practice and IP consciousness

The following feature was written by Professor Ruth Soetendorp in response to two earlier posts.

A research circle as described in recent IP Finance postings (here and here) reminds me of 'communities of practice' (see Wikipedia definition) written about early on by, among others, Lave & Wenger. On first reading about communities of practice, it struck me how they were more prevalent in situations where there was risk of damage to human life or to property, for example between different professions in medicine, between the different professions and trades in built environment, but were not to be found between the professions and trades involved in the creation, protection and exploitation of IPR. Teaching about IP, at any level on any programme, I always begin by reference to confidentiality and trade secrets as 'the cheapest and simplest form of intellectual property protection'.

In 2005 the Intellectual Property Quarterly published "Intellectual Property Education—In the Law School and Beyond" in which I wrote:

There are examples of successful interdisciplinary learning projects, where science and technology students have had to study an aspect of the law (for example, environmental law, labour law, contract or intellectual property), which is key, but not core, to their primary discipline studies (61). But there are few, if any, initiatives that bring together creators of intellectual property rights with intellectual property practitioners and professional advisers. The closest many future inventors and innovators will get is an occasional ‘‘one-off’’ lecture from a patent or trade mark professional, and many do not even have that.

Interdisciplinary education initiatives are, of necessity, far more advanced where the safety of lives and property depend on the ability of professionals from different disciplines working successfully together. Interdisciplinarity is key in the education of surgeons and nurses, who work closely in an operating theatre, or builders and architects on a building site (62) The Joint Education Board of the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents and Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys is currently reviewing its foundation stage of training. More universities are expected to be accredited to deliver their foundation units. Perhaps this will be a catalyst for exploring interdisciplinary dialogue between future intellectual property practitioners and their future clients.

Some engineering academics are deterred from including intellectual property in their syllabus because they suspect that students might experience learning difficulties with assessments in a subject from another discipline. They fear this would result in lower assessment grades, which would reflect negatively on the work of the engineering faculty within the institution (63). This has not been the case in Bournemouth, where the Design Engineering and Computing faculty, and the Media School have noted no disparity between marks scored for IPR exam questions and those on other aspects of professional practice (64). Intellectual Property units are successfully completed on interdisciplinary programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Learning the hard way?
Expecting graduates to wait until they start their careers to learn about how intellectual property operates in the workplace leaves them vulnerable.

A few years ago an undergraduate final year furniture design student wrote to a well known international low price furniture manufacturer. The student described his innovative project, and invited the company’s support. The company replied that they did not work with students. Six months later his item appeared in their catalogue. In four years of his course, no one had flagged up to the student the importance of confidential disclosure. A patent agent recently commented:
‘‘What I suspect is incontrovertible is that the more aware of the basics, the less likely engineers are either to throw away valuable assets for themselves or their employers".
61. Washington University ‘‘students [from the different disciplines] can learn to communicate together, to maximise their respective skills, and to realise there are no clear dividing lines between the disciplines’’, Prof. Maxine Lipeles, holder of a joint appointment in the School of Law and the School of Engineering, Washington University (http://news-info.wustl.edu/sb/page/normal/78.html).
62. See J. Lave and E. Wenger writing on ‘‘communities of practice’’, e.g. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
63. M. Dodridge, ‘‘Learning outcomes and their assessment in higher education’’ (1999) 8 IEE Engineering Science & Education Journal 162–168.
64. R. Soetendorp (unpublished, Bournemouth University, 2002).

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