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7 unexpected ways to teach intellectual property

Understanding how to protect ideas needn't be a dry legal exercise - try these engaging approaches to explore IP with your students

Ettie Bailey-King

How to teach students about IP

Is a TikTok dance challenge infringing copyright? Can I remix my favourite songs? Who owns my social media content? Every day, the young people in our classrooms create and consume intellectual property (IP), often without knowing it.  

Whether they’re creating technology, music, machines or art, they deserve protection for their ideas. But few young people recognise that their ideas have value and that they can be protected.

“I had very little exposure to IP during my time at school,” says Sam Cox, a creative technologist who designs products, services and experiences, from futuristic cat habitats to social distancing Snapchat filters.

“The focus was always around production of content, from the written output to the making of physical objects. The consideration of how we go about protecting work was not a part of the curriculum. In retrospect, having a good grounding in this area while at school would have been very useful.”

So how can we teach students about IP in a way that is engaging and effective? Here are seven approaches:

1. Can you spot the IP?

When we eat KFC or drink Coca-Cola, we’re consuming IP. From trade secrets like the KFC original recipe to registered designs like Coca-Cola’s distinctive bottle shape, IP protects products, ideas and experiences that we love. Not every idea can be protected, but your students may be surprised at just how many are.

Show pupils that IP is all around us with an IP treasure hunt. Teach the class the core concepts of IP using this easy explainer or the Intellectual Property Office (IPO)’s interactive IP Tutor.

Set a timer and have students look around the room for brand names, trademarks, registered designs or patents. Did they read a book or poem, watch a video or listen to a song today? That’s IP, too. Award a prize to the student with the most surprising spot.    

2. Immersive storytelling 

IP doesn’t have to mean dry legal theory. The IPO’s tailored lesson plans are packed with fun and accessible stories. They’re suitable for all key stages and for subjects including media studies, music, design technology and business studies.

For students under 12, Nancy and The Meerkats follows a small, furry musician and her band as she battles her nemesis, Kitty Perry. The radio series and podcast cover logo design, writing and remixing songs, recording concerts and sharing them online (on Mew Tube, of course).

The Game Is On follows Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick John Watson as they pursue missing film stars, anarchists and a mysterious forger through a cartoon universe. They’re suitable for 11- to 18-year-olds studying English language and literacy, media, art and law.

3. Make it concrete

IP can seem abstract, but make it concrete – or clay, papier-mâché, cardboard or wood – and students can see how a good idea becomes tangible.   

At Fleetville Junior School, students learned about IP with support from the Cracking Ideas team after a student won their annual competition and received a model-making workshop for their class with Jim Parkyn, senior model maker with Aardman Animations, who create Wallace and Gromit.

“The workshop with Jim Parkyn was a fantastic surprise for the whole class,” says Evalie Gandre, a teacher at Fleetville Junior School.

“What I liked about it was the fact that it wasn't just about the finished product (the model of Gromit) but the skills learned that could be reused again. What we learn in school should be relevant to the real world and equip children with tools for their future life.”

4. Invention as a process, not an end 

The learning from the model-making workshop didn’t end when the session did; pupils were inspired to continue creating and refining their products and to learn more about developing them.

“It’s inspiring to see the children come out with inventive ways of achieving their goal,” says Evalie. “Often the final product isn’t an end in itself. Many children carried on thinking about how they could improve on their original model and what they could do next. They saw it as an ongoing process.”

By encouraging students to see invention as a journey rather than a one-stop process, we can nurture the next generation of inventors.

How to teach about intellectual property

5. Capture students' competitive spirit

Competitions can encourage students to look at the world around them and think of ways to make things quicker and better.

The Cracking Ideas campaign from the Intellectual Property Office and Aardman is a great way to kick-start this creative process in students. There are a series of films featuring warm-up activities, inspiration and tips and tricks to keep the ideas flowing for the annual competition.

Business Battle shows students what it’s like to patent their own product and battle it out for success. Play the online game with between two and 10 teams to take students’ competitive, commercial spirit to the next level.

6. Spark a debate about IP

IP is frequently taught in music lessons, so why not switch it up and invite students to debate the line between inspiration and infringement? There are many famous court cases they can discuss, such as the Marvin Gaye and Blurred Lines lawsuit.

With copyright being an automatic right, how can you ensure that the rightful owner is credited with their work? Anything created online will be dated with time created, drawings and illustrations can be photographed with a time stamp. Or you can post your originals in a sealed envelope. 

Why not have students copyright a song for themselves in real time? They may not be going to court over their creations any time soon, but it could be the first step in seeing themselves as creators of ideas that matter. 

Students can also roleplay creating and pitching ideas for a TV or film production, negotiating a commercial contract, or defending their inventions in a mock trial.  

And for A-level law students, you can dive into examples of key US court cases related to board games to show how different aspects of a board game can be protected.

7. Connect IP with future careers

More than 40 per cent of primary-school students surveyed by Barclays Business Banking said they wanted to start their own business one day. Of those, more than a fifth wanted to start a digital business, like app-building, vlogging or video game design.

To thrive in digital careers, young people need to know their way around IP; the difference between reproduction and infringement, open-source and protected code, copyright and patent could be crucial.

Lesson plans for 16- to 18 year-olds, on topics like the relevance of IP to future career plans, can help your students connect the dots between IP and their dreams for the future.

Even the greatest inventions start from humble beginnings. So why not start close to home? The Intellectual Property Office’s Cracking Ideas competition helps young people to see the potential in everyday objects and activities. Students aged 4-11 can enter; all they need to do is reimagine an everyday object to help get boring jobs done quicker and better. 

For more information, visit: Cracking Ideas

Ettie Bailey-King

Ettie Bailey-King is a freelance writer

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