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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Intellectual property rights unknown to students

“IP? Internet Protocol?” “What’s ‘IP’ stand for? International policy?”

Shockingly, those were the two most common responses that I received from Drexel students when asking them if they knew what IP stood for and what it represented to them. Drexel has long been a school that prides itself on the level of innovation generated by its rising engineers and other students. Would it not make sense that its students should at least know the basic rights that they have with regards to their own inventions and creations? Apparently not.

In a world where the spark of creativity can ignite an unending flame of potential through one’s intellectual innovation, it is more important than ever that those who innovate are able to grasp the full concept of what rights they are owed when it comes to their intellectual property. Furthermore, the fact that many of these inventors commence such innovative activity from a young age, even as early as in their late teenage years, leaves many of them susceptible to having others who are quick with words manipulate them into handing over their property rights.

It is not surprising, therefore, that too many young adults see the time required to innovate as more and more of an unnecessary burden on their shoulders. What motivation is there to innovate when individuals do not even believe that they will reap the much-deserved rewards for their time and effort? This should most definitely not be the case at our institution, a university with patent and copyright policies that explicitly place the rights of students’ work in their hands.

I had a chance to speak with the very man who was directly involved with drafting our copyright and patent policies all those years ago in the hope that the rest of the community would better understand their intellectual property rights. Sadly, his efforts were to no avail. In fact, he has been actively campaigning for the rest of the Drexel community to take notice of the fact that we, as students, are severely undereducated about our intellectual property rights for a long period of time. However, his efforts have gone seemingly unnoticed. Longtime Drexel professor Neal Orkin worked with the first vice president for research, Richard Schneider, for more than a year constructing Drexel’s original patent and copyright policies back in 1986. What was all that work for? To have most of his fourth- and fifth-year undergraduate engineering students tell him 20 years later that they are entitled to the rights to none of their own work.

The actual model for the policies that were created is extremely efficient compared to the model at other universities for a reason that Orkin stated when I sat down with him to talk to him: “As far as I know, we’re the only university where the final decision is not made by a university administrator; it’s made by an arbitration panel, a professional arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association — someone who’s familiar with both labor and employment law and one person selected by Drexel and one by the inventor.” This model is one that could even be implemented at other universities.

However, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that these policies are not getting nearly enough exposure. Students do not know anywhere near enough information about what their ownership rights entail, and this needs to be changed. Orkin offers the perfect solution for this: “The University can deliver information, especially to freshmen, when they come in through their University 101 courses. It shouldn’t take more than two hours to explain what a patent, trademark, copyright and trade secret is. In addition, they can go over, paragraph by paragraph, the Drexel Patent Policy and the Drexel Copyright Policy. They should be given proper education, and I think that if they knew what the IP Policies stand for and are taught this as freshmen, when they create inventions that make money, this would be a great selling point for Drexel. We could compete with MIT for high-quality students if they see that they can become a millionaire by the time they graduate!” These are truly awe-inspiring thoughts that raise the all-but-answered question: Why is Drexel not giving more students exposure to these policies when it is ready to be served on a silver platter that has been crafted with years of work by hardworking individuals? That is still a question to be answered with time.

Until this happens, however, limited progress will be made regardless of how much creativity is garnered among the student body. Orkin put it best: “You could have the greatest entrepreneurial minds in the world and the greatest technology managers, but if you don’t have the idea, then there is nothing to manage and nothing to sell. I think a lot of Drexel students are extremely creative; but most of the students that I teach, including the engineers, have no idea that Drexel does have both these policies.”

Could this problem at Drexel be tied to a larger, more worrisome goliath of a situation rising on the horizon of our beloved country? I asked Orkin about his opinion on this as well: “Aside from the Drexel policy, most engineers and scientists in this country sign a pre-employment agreement that in return for promise of present or future employment, they will assign all the rights to their inventions and they get virtually nothing in return or very little. They get pen sets, plaques, dinners and honorariums. Germany was the first country to establish a national law requiring royalties to employee inventors — that was done in 1942 by the Nazis. The law was then re-enacted in 1957, and typically a German employee inventor can now get between 2 and 7 percent of the profits that his or her employer makes, so you could have a working engineer making more than the CEO of a company like Hosch Chemicals or Mercedes Benz.”

Boy, that situation sure sounds awesome to most of us engineers spending sleepless nights buried under our piles of books! Unfortunately, the situation in the United States does not look like it is going anywhere near that at the moment, and a potential slowdown and lack of innovation is a very real threat that many are unwilling to face. However, changes on our campus could represent the beginning of a major turnaround throughout the country where employee inventors are given minimal rewards for their vital work.

In conclusion, when asked if he could advise the student body about the most important thing related to their IP rights, Orkin had this to say: “As I mentioned earlier, they do have rights to term papers. They do have rights to their work: artwork, photography work, etc. They do have, in certain situations, patent rights to their invention, but they don’t know about it, and a lot of students don’t know about it in their fourth or fifth year. It’s too late for them to try to innovate, so it should be done freshman year.”

Sim Raghunathan is a business and legal studies major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.org.