Engelberg Center colloquium focuses on business of intellectual property

Are we running out of trademarks? Professor Jeanne Fromer and John M. Desmarais Professor of Intellectual Property Law Barton Beebe posed this question to an intimate gathering of students, law scholars, and practitioners in the opening session of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy spring colloquium. Fromer and Beebe posit in their paper “An Empirical Study of Trademark Depletion,” currently in a very early draft, that we might be experiencing a trademark shortage due to the large amount of commonly used English language words currently trademarked. This limit can have an impact on marketplace competition, cause consumer confusion, and degrade the quality of goods and services. This intersection of law and economics, ripe for exploration, is the topic being examined this semester.

The colloquium focuses each year on a theme. The first, held in 1997, explored the definition of innovation and the incentive structures behind it. Professor Christopher Sprigman said of this year’s colloquium, which he is co-leading with Professor Scott Hemphill, “We wanted to give students a sense of how economists and economically minded lawyers are thinking about innovation questions.”

“It’s a very broad topic,” acknowledges Hemphill. “There’s so much going on in innovation policy right now. We’re starting to think about rewriting the copyright statute. There’s this explosion of patent litigation. Economic analysis helps us think about these issues by giving us theories that can help us to understand what’s going on, and economics provides methodological tools that let us actually try to work out what’s really going on.”

Christopher Sprigman

The colloquium format, made popular by the Colloquium in Legal, Political, and Social Philosophy—co-founded by NYU Law professors Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel in 1987—is unique in the academic world. “You feel like you’re engaging on the foundational level of knowledge, which is very different from reading out of a journal or a casebook,” says Zachary Travis ’17. “I wouldn’t trade it for any other class.”

Students in the colloquium are given working research papers by academics in the field. This allows them to question and explore the ideas in the papers directly with their authors. Students then produce research papers related to the colloquium’s focus on the law and economics of innovation. Travis is currently writing his paper on the validity of the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit and whether there are other ways the government could spend money to encourage innovation.    

Scott Hemphill

The paper topics presented in the colloquium run from theoretical to empirical and are as diverse as the scholars themselves. Following Fromer and Beebe’s first session, Tim Wu—Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and pop culture writer—presented a more theoretical question regarding innovation. “Tim Wu offered a novel theory of how to think about attention-broker firms like Google and Facebook who collect eyeballs and resell that attention to advertisers, and if that’s a helpful lens for understanding the world,” says Hemphill.

“I hope that through exposure to scholarship—current scholarship that is seeking to address interesting, central current questions in innovation policy—that students will get some idea of what scholars do to approach some of these questions, how we come to learn things, what are the strengths and weaknesses of different methodological approaches within the law and economics discipline,” says Sprigman.

Analyzing the papers from this scholarly point of view is helpful in many respects. Sprigman believes deeply diving into a paper is advantageous in order to gain more firm understanding of a particular part of the law. “For example, it’s very difficult to be a really great antitrust practitioner without also being a really discerning consumer of antitrust scholarship,” says Sprigman.

Travis agrees that his participation in the colloquium as a student will prepare him for the future. “The colloquium lets us go in depth on issues instead of studying at the surface,” says Travis. “That’s a skill that will be necessary in practice.” 

Posted April 28, 2016