#FLInnovation: Intellectual Property


The third week of the Loughborough University MOOC on Innovation looks at intellectual property, including copyright, patents, trademarks and design protection. Just writing that sentence gives some indication of the breadth of this subject area, and the MOOC barely scratches the surface.

The fundamental problem with writing any MOOC content on intellectual property is that intellectual property law varies across jurisdictions (it is also complicated within jurisdictions, but we shall let that go for now). The process for granting intellectual property rights varies, the process for enforcing intellectual property rights varies, the length of time rights are valid varies, and, in the case of design protection, the names of the rights themselves all vary among countries. This diversity makes it difficult for the MOOC content to be explicit in describing the process for protecting intellectual property, but where it does it assumes English examples without making this clear. This ambiguity is interesting in the design of MOOCs. In designing a course for traditional students the country being referred to is generally clear, but MOOCS are open to people from anywhere, so international differences need to be clear and the developers cannot assume where “here” is.

The heart of the module is asking students to visit the website of the UK Intellectual Property Office and the US Patent and Trademark Office website and answer seven questions:

1. Copyright protects material only when it has been written down or recorded (true or false).
2. Copyright applies to any medium. What do we mean by this statement?
3. How long does copyright protection last for?
4. Why can’t ‘TASTY FISH PIE’ be registered as a trademark?
5. Trademarks describe goods or services or any characteristics of them (true or false).
6. Why can’t your new trademark contain the Olympic rings?
7. Trademarks provide consumers with an essential guarantee as to the origin of the goods (true or false).
8. What does a registered design protect?

These are very interesting and detailed websites designed to help potential intellectual property holders understand the process of protection in each country, so spending time exploring them is a useful way to understand the intellectual property regimes in the UK (and effectively the European Union) and US. Pointing students at a website with a set of questions and asking them to come back and post their answers on the MOOC website is following the well established FOFO pedagogy (FOFO stands, politely, for “go away and find out”). However the answers posted by students vary enormously, generally without citing the reason why they think they have the answer. The MOOC does not include any feedback to students on what the right answers are and why. The implication in question 4 is, I believe, wrong. For example, you can trademark a description of fruit as a trademark so long as you don’t then go into the fruit business and start suing every fruit retailer for infringement. Interestingly this was the only thing that prevented The Beatles and Steve Jobs diversifying into the greengrocery sector. There would be nothing to stop me registering “Tasty Fish Pie” as the name of a software company. Without a set of answers or a moderated discussion students do not get feedback, so these discussions are missed out and students can go forward with false knowledge.

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