By Marshall Phelps
Remember that scene in the 1967 movie The Graduate when Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) offers career advice to a young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman)?
“Plastics!” he says. “There’s a great future in plastics.”
Half a century later, it’s not plastics but rather intellectual property (IP) — patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets — that is now the key engine of opportunity for almost any successful career in the future.
Until recently, intellectual property was a narrowly-specialized field of interest only to inventors, corporate R&D managers and lawyers. But in today’s knowledge economy, where ideas and innovation rather than labor, raw materials or capital investment drive economic growth and business success, intellectual property has moved to center stage as the key success factor in business, science, the arts and the professions.
Here are the five key reasons why intellectual property will be critical to your career:
1. Intellectual property now comprises over 35% of the total U.S. economy.
According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. intellectual property is worth more than $5 trillion a year and comprises 35% of total U.S. GDP. This means IP’s value in the U.S. is greater than the total GDP of any other nation on earth except China.
IP-intensive industries account for over 40 million jobs today, or nearly a third of all U.S. employment. Average weekly wages in such industries were 42% higher than in other sectors, and in patent- and copyright-based industries, the wage premium is even higher — 73% and 77% respectively. And IP-intensive merchandise accounts for 60% of total U.S. merchandise exports.
Put simply, the future is no longer plastics, it’s intellectual property. The smart move therefore is to “follow the money” and build a career in a fast-growing IP-intensive industry.
2. IP and other intangible assets represent 80% of the market value of U.S. public companies today.
Forty years ago, tangible corporate assets like plant, equipment, raw materials, and buildings and real estate represented 80% of the market value of publicly-traded companies in the U.S., with intangible assets comprising the other 20%.
In today’s knowledge economy, however, that ratio is reversed. Studies now show that intangible assets like patents, trademarks and trade secrets now represent 80% or more of the market value of public companies. And one reason that’s true, as a groundbreaking study pointed out last year, is that on average patented products and services generate 50% more return than unpatented ones.
Since it’s likely your employer’s chief asset is intellectual property, too, learning how to deploy, defend and monetize it is a good way for ambitious employees to get ahead.
3. IP is driving the biggest new developments in science, business, arts and the professions.
Look around and you’ll see intellectual property’s growing role in almost every industry and profession you can imagine.
The business pages are filled with headlines of corporate “patent wars” and patent sales or acquisitions, including Yahoo’s current patent sale. IP is so crucial in business because, as bank robber Willie Sutton famously noted, “That’s where the money is” in most companies.
Meanwhile, debates rage in art journals and in social media over whether the artist Richard Prince’s use of other people’s Instagram posts is infringement or fair use. And in the music industry, Led Zeppelin’s acquittal of copyright infringement charges was a big relief.
But that said, last year’s $7 million copyright infringement verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for borrowing musical themes from soul singer Marvin Gaye’s work has had major repercussions on the industry’s practice of incorporating elements, features, themes, and even the “feel” and “mood” of other artists and genres. Just ask singer Sam Smith, who immediately after that verdict granted Tom Petty songwriting credit and royalties to Smith’s song “Stay With Me,” which bore some resemblance to Petty’s 1988 hit “I Won’t Back Down.”
IP issues — specifically music copyrights — have also percolated into politics. Just this week, Mike Huckabee disclosed that he paid $25,000 to settle copyright infringement charges for using the Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” at a rally last year without permission. Last month, the Rolling Stones demanded that Donald Trump to stop playing their songs at his campaign rallies.
And in the sciences, experts say that as much as 80% of all the world’s technical knowledge is now contained only in patent documents. Woe be to any scientist or engineer who doesn’t know how to access and make use of this patent knowledge database.
From Silicon Valley startups to Fortune 500 board rooms, from MIT engineering labs to Wall Street trading desks, and from college business seminars to debates in Congress over global trade policy, intellectual property issues now drive many of the most important new developments in science, business, arts, and the professions today.
4. IP is the engine of business and professional growth and deal making.
If you’re a startup entrepreneur, patents will be vital to securing a venture capital funding deal. That’s what 67% of entrepreneurs said when surveyed in the Berkeley study Patenting by Entrepreneurs: An Empirical Study. Not surprisingly, while 40% of all startups held patents, 80% of those receiving venture investment owned patents.
And if you’re an executive at a larger firm, you won’t be able to cement joint ventures, acquisitions, or partnerships absent the scaffolding of clear-cut IP agreements between the parties.
As for those of you planning careers in the arts, sciences, or professions, your patents, copyrighted work, your professional publications, and published writings all comprise key elements of your personal “brand” that can often be even more important in unlocking new career opportunities than your resume or CV.
5. Intellectual property can enhance your career — but only if you learn the basics.
To be sure, the subtler details of intellectual property law can be confusing to the non-lawyer. But the basics of IP are hardly rocket science, and you’ll find plenty of resources online to bring you up to speed on the inner workings and impact of IP in your particular field.
These include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s IP e-learning series as well as a variety of other sources (of varying quality) devoted to specific professions or career tracks. Without necessarily endorsing any online sources in particular, I found numerous sites for learning about IP in the arts, IP for small and medium-sized businesses, IP for educators and even IP for gardeners and landscape designers.
Just search for “IP and …” the career or industry of your choice and you’ll find multiple sources online that provide relevant and useful IP information.
One especially good, one-stop source for IP learning is this series of 3-minute animated videos that answer such common questions as “Can I Patent That?”, “Is It Infringement or Fair Use?” and “What If Someone Infringes My Trademark?”
Here’s the bottom line: Any young person who doesn’t grasp at least the basics of intellectual property will find him or herself at a distinct disadvantage in the career world of tomorrow.
This article was written by Marshall Phelps from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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