Respect for IP can be Taught and Nurtured

By  Marshall Phelps

There is a widening gap in intellectual property knowledge. Most people do not have a clue what patents and other IP rights achieve, and for whom. This includes the general public and many in government and business.

IP rights like patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets are often viewed as impediments or barriers to access, not assets upon which to build. No wonder incentive for taking IP seriously is at an all-time low, and “innocent” pilfering of IP rights is widely acceptable. Our culture seems to be saying: “It’s ok to shoplift intangibles, if it’s not too obvious.” But buying fake goods, copying content, or appropriating someone’s trade secrets are not victimless crimes. They have a dramatic economic impact.

The Department of Commerce reported in 2016 that IP-intensive industries supported 45.5 million jobs and contributed $6.6 trillion in value-add, equivalent to 38.2 percent of U.S. GDP.

In aggregate, IP represents 70%-80% of the value of the modern corporation. There is a lot to lose here. But information speed and access have made copying second nature to anyone who owns a smart phone or PC. Sharing content no longer seems like theft, unless you happen to be the victim. The constant expansion of the limits of acceptable IP behavior is easy to ignore, but more dangerous than we believe.


IP has helped the U.S. to become the richest and the most idea-driven nation, and most socially mobile. However, there is a disconnect when it comes to acknowledging IP rights, including those that protect inventions, brands and content. They all are subject to rampant theft, in large part because audiences do not fully understand the impact of their inter-actions with them.

IP free-riders today come in a multitude of shades. It is difficult to say how they emerged, but ease of access to content and information has had a lot to do with it — so has anger against authority and government, and belief that it is somehow unfair if everybody does not have access to everything all the time. It’s time to step back and take a good look at the widespread acceptance of IP theft. There is no question that laws limiting squatters and shoplifters should be enforced, but IP abusers are often ignored, or, worse still, cheered.

Peel-back the Layers

The Center for Intellectual Property Understanding (CIPU) is a new non-profit that several of colleagues and I have started. CIPU will drill down to identify, understand and address the anger towards IP rights that has become routine. We hope to engage a broad cross-section audiences. Groups like schools, parents and the media need to know more about the benefits of IP rights and the dangers of disrespecting ideas, including the financial, moral and political impacts of failing to.

CIPU is undertaking a range of projects in 2017 to help it achieve IP awareness, including a survey of general and business audiences on attitudes toward IP rights, a proposed conference on innovation with policy with Duke, and a research paper on trends in media coverage of patent disputes. We hope to work with other IP organizations to maximize the impact of existing IP education projects and materials, and to create new ones.

High Cost of Mis-Understanding

Understanding the impact of IP and identifying acceptable behaviors are too important to be left to people to try to figure out by themselves. To many, products like music, books, novel designs, inventions and counterfeit goods appear to be there for the taking – or feel as if they should be.

Uncertainty about what IP rights cover and their appropriate is a global problem. Leadership must come not only from IP owners and the courts, but from lawmakers, educators, businesses and parents who realize that IP theft is no less destructive than other, more obvious, crimes, especially when considering the collective impact.

About CIPU

The Center for Intellectual Property Understanding is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of intellectual property rights and their impact on people’s lives. CIPU conducts research, provides information and facilitates education that seeks to improve the reputation of IP rights and deter infringement.

The Center also tracks attitudes toward IP rights, including patents, copyrights and trademarks, and through outreach provides a framework for how the facilitate ideas, promote competition and create jobs. CIPU is granted tax-exempt status by the IRS as a 501(c)(3). For more information visit

[This post originally appeared at IPWatchdog.]

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