Opinion: Intellectual Property Law Should Play a Greater Role in Business Education

Con Xie

What do Andy Warhol, the Supreme Court, and Prince all have in common? In most cases, one would answer “very little”. However, all three are at the center of the most high-profile yet-to-be-decided intellectual property case, in which prominent photographer Lynn Goldsmith sued the Andy Warhol Foundation for copyright infringement. It is yet to be determined whether the artist’s prints based on Goldsmith’s work made sufficient changes in either substance or context to the original photograph to have distinct value of its own. If so, then the work is considered “transformative” and the breach of copyright claim would be null.  

For the average business student, this might seem like a fascinating topic for small talk at a networking event – a piece of news that greatly impacts an industry that may or may not be related to their area of study, but important to know nonetheless. In truth, it touches on an entire field connecting law, business, the arts, and even free speech that presents a valuable set of understandings for a future career, whether it be in banking, marketing, launching a startup, or publishing a successful blog. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that, at NYU Stern, undergraduates are required to take only one module of IP law as part of the Law, Business, & Society curriculum – roughly equivalent to the amount of time spent on criminal law. Though the latter is critical to society at large and deserves a place in any higher education program, intellectual property is arguably more significant to business majors. The MBA program, according to the CIPU report, only features IP in one course. 

For students who haven’t taken LBS, intellectual property encompasses intangible assets that stem from human creativity and innovation, whether it be a logo, process, work of art, etc. The ability to protect these assets through intellectual property law (IP law), according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, serves as a “key driver of economic growth and innovation in business” as it offers an incentive for advancement. The four primary types of intellectual property rights are patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. They touch on nearly all aspects of business and day-to-day life: patent development has recently been a key component of Bank of America’s fintech development, spanning AI, data analytics, payment technology, and many other areas. Knowledge of this would give students interested in sales, fintech, and analytics a competitive edge in their respective fields. Trademarks and copyright are everywhere, from Hello Kitty to Nike; the recipes to Coca Cola and the Google algorithm are among the best-kept trade secrets of recent history. 

Intellectual property is often what defines an individual or group’s competitive edge in the market. Accounting majors will likely concur – intangible assets, which include IP, contribute significantly to corporate balance sheets. Awareness of IP among team members and effective management of IP in companies would lead to more efficient asset management and cost-saving preventive measures against IP infringement. Given the increasing role of technology in all sectors, intellectual property is also becoming increasingly critical to business practices, leading firms like KPMG to level up their IP commercialization services for clients. 

Unfortunately, however, the involvement of IP instruction in business schools falls disproportionately short of its prominence in real world practice. A study conducted by the Center for Intellectual Property Understanding (CIPU) reveals that business students today are not required to have a benchmark understanding of intellectual property to receive an MBA. For most schools mentioned in the study, IP was touched upon in existing courses, and IP courses were made available on an ad hoc basis, but there was no dedicated effort for ensuring IP literacy. One reason for this, it argues, is that there is a “cultural divide” between IP-proficient instructors of different disciplines. IP Watchdog notes that CIPU’s report is one of the few pieces of literature on IP instruction in business schools, dubbing it an “excellent springboard for greater collaboration”.

Given Stern’s clear dedication to integrating expertise across business fields to push for greater change, it is about time that intellectual property is given a greater role in the business school curriculum.

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