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Interview: Ruth Soetendorp, IP educator and outgoing chair of IPAN

Alice O'Donkor, London

Alice O' Donkor talks to outgoing IPAN chair Ruth Soetendorp about IP education, awareness and understanding

Soetendorp Ruth
Ruth Soetendorp
Self-described IP enthusiast Ruth Soetendorp is professor emerita and associate director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management at Bournemouth University. She speaks to Managing IP about research on IP education in higher education and the increasing popularity of the subject.

She is outgoing chair of IPAN (Intellectual Property Awareness Network), a position she has held for the past three years. Since moving back to London, Soetendorp has also worked with Cass Business School of City University London to develop a module in intellectual property management for business study students. Surprisingly, Soetendorp describes her employment status as “retired”.

She explains: “When I retired in 2007, I made a distinction between a job and work. I no longer have a proper job, but I do work, and I am always interested in intellectual property work.”

The drive for IP learning in higher education

In the late 1980s, Soetendorp completed a degree in politics and law, followed by a master’s degree in employment, international trade and human rights law.  After seeing an advertisement for an intellectual property course at Queen Mary University of London and consulting with her family, Soetendorp decided to do “one more course”. Around the same time, Bournemouth University appointed her as a part-time lecturer.

“I found the whole course at Queen Mary absolutely fascinating,” says Soetendorp. “There had to be nearly 100 students. I think I was one of very few who were not a solicitor looking to add to their portfolio. It really struck me that intellectual property was not being discussed as a topic of relevance to the people who create intellectual property. It was only being considered as a topic with lawyers. Things have changed a lot.”

According to Soentendorp, the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s marked the start of what she describes as a “mass movement to get more people into university and make degree programmes more industry-related”.

“It was a very good opportunity to get in and say: why aren’t more students getting a chance to look into intellectual property? That’s what I did at Bournemouth. We got in a half module for the product design engineers and a full module into the law degree on intellectual property. That was really the beginning of developing my ideas about intellectual property education.”

Studies reflect demand for IP teaching

“My experience helped me to confirm my idea that once people know about IP, they are interested in it. This is something that I have believed very firmly and I have not seen anything to contradict,” says Soetendorp. “The students are not the barrier to developing IP learning and ideas. The barriers are the academics.”

In a 2012 study conducted by the National Union of Students, IPO and IPAN, researchers found that students wanted “teaching of IP issues to be more closely-related to their course discipline” and “only 40 per cent of students consider their current awareness of IP to be enough to support them in their future career”.

Recent collaborative research between the National Union of Students Insight team and IPAN focused on IP understanding among students and staff in higher education institutions (HEI). The study revealed that “76 per cent of staff believe that IP should be taught at their HEI, with 58% regarding teaching students as important (and unimportant by 14%) for their future careers.” While the majority of staff support IP education, just over a third claim that IP is taught in their institution.

Changing perceptions

Over the past 35 years, Soetendorp has worked with several British and international groups on IP education including CIPA, EPO, OHIM (now EUIPO) and WIPO. “The idea that IP is something to be shared and learned by people other than lawyers has grown,” she says. However, Soetendorp says that convincing people outside the legal profession that intellectual property education is important poses an endless challenge.

Soetendorp recalls a particular teaching session with a group of “hostile” undergraduate nursing students. "They were not interested in anything to do with commercialisation and told me: 'Look, we’re here to make people better.' I was just losing it!" After half an hour, she asked the students if any of them had produced anything that could be called innovative or creative and describes this as the turning point in the class. “Several people had either improved, created or invented something and they left the room realising what I was talking about was relevant to them. These things can happen, but you have to be an enthusiast.”

“What I think is challenging when talking about IP law is: how can you make what is so sophisticated, fast-moving, quite jurisprudentially challenging, relevant to somebody who perhaps can be seen for an hour (perhaps a couple of hours) so that they feel they have gone away with something that is not dumbed down and is of value to them?”

“For people who say because they will never understand it all, don’t even mention it to them – I mean, that’s ridiculous! You wouldn’t have it with sex education. You wouldn’t have it with financial management.”

“We are not producing IP experts but preparing people who respect the existence of IP…”

As an IP educator, Soetendorp believes that it is essential for all IP students to grasp two concepts: “The very first thing is confidentiality. It doesn’t cost anything, but it starts with a sense of awareness and a sense of self-esteem. Those qualities are transferrable in any person.” Secondly: “It is important to teach students that what they are doing has value and therefore you have to look after it ab initio. If you have messed up the confidentiality aspect, the chance of a patent becomes drastically reduced.”

Ruth’s students at the CASS Business School benefit from lessons about confidentiality, licensing law, non-disclosure agreements, IP portfolio management, strategic patenting and the value of IP to an SME. “They get this mix of management issues founded on legal issues. What’s also interesting is that some people take a module like the one I described and go on to study intellectual property.”

One thing that she urges IP educators, and equally those that may not subscribe to the idea of teaching IP to non-lawyers, to remember is: “We are not producing IP experts, but preparing people who respect the existence of IP as relevant to themselves and other people. You are sharpening their ability to call in an expert at the right time.”

In November 2015, the IPO and Minister for Intellectual Property Baroness Neville-Rolfe launched Cracking Ideas, a website partly funded by the EUIPO, providing IP teaching resources, advice and guidance for students.

IP education in the UK and potential roadblocks

On IP learning developments in the UK, Soetendorp says: “We have got some fabulous resources. What we have not got yet, I think, is an articulated or joined-up process of getting those resources in front of teachers.”

While Soetendorp admits: “The agenda for a teachers…[and] academic courses are very crowded”, she says: “We cannot take our eyes off the ball when it comes to encouraging teacher training programmes to include mention of intellectual property. They are encouraging pupils to use copyright materials and so they do need to have something of an IP awareness.”

The IPO has set out to “increase IP-related course content” in schools, further education colleges and universities to its five year plan. In 2015, the IPO announced that it had already successfully secured the inclusion of IP in QAA (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) benchmark statements in a number of academic courses and that it would “continue to influence other relevant courses throughout the year”. Soetendorp describes this as “a toe in the door for IP education” but remains hopeful that the “IPO and education ministries will find some common ground to talk on” to encourage further advancements.  

A teacher’s interpretation of design rights

Soetendorp is part of a research initiative commissioned by the UK IPO to investigate design rights awareness among designers and design companies. The report, which she says “should be out by the end of the year”, will include research and responses from designers.

“I think designers are one of the poorest served by the intellectual property regime as they are at the moment. It can be so confusing for people and easy to be overlooked and bullied. The research is very timely.”

She continues: “When you look at a case like Trunki, as a teacher of law, you understand exactly where the decision came from. The decision could not be any other way. When you look at it from the perspective of a designer, how does he know what he should have done better or what he should be done differently? It seems to be tougher than in the other areas or harder to understand for the layperson, the design artist and the design lawyers.”

Soetendorp has handed over her chair position at IPAN to Guernsey economist and former IP registrar John Ogier but will remain a member of the organisation. Soetendorp says: “I find it irresistible to turn down any sort of invitation to get involved with IP education and spreading the word and I imagine this will continue throughout the coming year.”



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