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Learning How to Protect Our Innovations Through the Cryptoworks21 Intellectual Property (IP) Lecture Series

As researchers at Waterloo, we spend much of our time conducting ground-breaking research, then publishing our results openly so that others may critique them and build upon our work. But did you know that a large part of our creative work becomes our Intellectual Property, referred to as IP, to which we carry rights? And that it can hold great value for us now and in the future?

The Cryptoworks21 lecture series on IP presents a fascinating look at the various kinds of ideas that make up intellectual property, the concrete steps that can be taken to protect them, and how they can be managed and utilized over time. The seminars were designed in collaboration with colleagues at the Conrad Centre, Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, and Gowling WLG. Most of the lectures are given by highly-seasoned senior patent agents and attorneys at Gowling WLG, a very large and respected law firm with many offices in Canada, including in Waterloo.

By taking steps to protect some of our innovations, we retain the right to commercialize them and protect against others copying and using our ideas for their own commercial benefit without our permission. It helps us to form start-ups or collaborate with existing industry partners to bring ideas to practical application, and contribute to Canada’s thriving and competitive technology sector. It also allows us to license our ideas to others to benefit from our innovation and help fund new research efforts. Creating exciting new IP is an important part of Waterloo’s entrepreneurial agenda. It will help Canada advance towards leadership in commercialization of new tools and technologies.

When I previously worked in engineering at Research In Motion (RIM), now known as BlackBerry, I came to appreciate the importance of IP. After each design meeting, teams would mine all new ideas as candidates for patents. RIM’s portfolio eventually grew to several tens of thousands of them. Many of the firm’s biggest innovations that we take for granted today, such as using a smartphone with a display and keyboard, as well as many messaging, security and user interface features, were codified in valuable patents. These allowed the makers of the BlackBerry to pioneer the smartphone market and dominate it for a long time.

On the flip side, it cost RIM over half a billion dollars to settle one patent infringement dispute that suddenly threatened its entire business. Clearly, the impact of patents can be profound. And they can affect tiny start-ups as much as tech giants. In my later post-doctoral collaboration with a financial technology start-up, my research contributed to a patent application. The start-up’s ability to raise capital and grow was definitely aided by possessing patents to showcase to potential investors.

The Cryptoworks21 lecture series on IP explains the various kinds of IP, including patents, trademarks, designs, and copyrights, and how each have their own rules on how they are prepared and used. Many kinds of inventions are eligible for protection, ranging from theoretical methods, to physical processes, to computer hardware and software, to product and tool designs. All these forms of IP are discussed in an easy-to-understand manner so that we can learn to identify them. The talks are of interest to anyone in the cryptography, cybersecurity, and quantum computing community. Quantum-related patents are an especially hot and emerging area where contributions are desired.

The world of IP is constantly changing to adapt to evolving technology needs; the practitioners from Gowling WLG provide an insightful look into the state of IP today. They provide a solid introduction to the basics of IP in a way that is relevant to our academic community. They navigate us through the potential minefields of IP agreements that often play a part in today’s research projects. They explain what kind of innovation can currently be protected and what cannot, and provide examples of legal decisions that have recently changed the course of law. They provide practical advice on how to document our ideas and take the right steps to protect them, respect confidentiality agreements, and handle possible disputes. They even provide guidance on a good strategy for managing IP, and discuss options for licensing and commercialization for those who are ready to take the next steps.

At Waterloo, we as the inventors of IP through our research efforts will usually retain full ownership of it. This is a very special and unique advantage. We can and should take steps to protect our world-class innovation where it makes sense. At the same time, we are still able to disseminate our contributions through academic publication. Many of the technologies and products that we use every day can consist of tens or even hundreds of inventions that came out of research labs. If measures had not been taken to protect this IP, these innovations will likely never have seen the light of day.

Of course, not every idea that is conceived has the same merit or carries the same purpose. Not every idea necessarily needs to be patented. As researchers, we ultimately want to create the best tools and techniques so that society can adopt them and benefit from them, and there are different paths to accomplish this. The IP lectures create awareness, understanding, and make us more informed to make our own decisions about whether it makes sense to pursue a patent or other form of protection in each case. We become better equipped to consider various factors such as relevance, novelty, impact, strategy on future use, and the cost of the patenting process.

All lecture sessions are interactive and engaging, and there are good debates on different issues and practical matters. I highly recommend this Cryptoworks21 series to anyone working anywhere along the spectrum from theoretical foundations to applications.