Learning About Intellectual Property

I'd like to thank our intellectual property folks here at Microsoft for writing this blog post, which is a great introduction to IP issues. For students who are creating new software for Imagine Cup, it's important to learn about these issues when the time comes to take your software to market. There are some useful links in here as well so please take a look!

John Scott Tynes
Imagine Cup Competition Manager
Microsoft Academic Programs


Welcome to Imagine Cup 2013!  It’s time to let your imaginations run wild and create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.  While on this journey we are sure you have been referencing the Imagine Cup 2013 Official Rules and may have come across important intellectual property and copyright rules and guidelines.  These guidelines inform you that the product of your work in this   competition is “owned” by you and your team, but do you understand what that really means?  We know that the terms “intellectual property” and “IP rights” get thrown around, but how do these terms apply to you and your Imagine Cup team?  

Intellectual property is a term that encompasses creations of the mind and the exclusive rights that adhere to them. The intellectual property rights that are the most important to you and your team are patent, trademark, and copyright.  A patent protects new inventions, trademark law protects the unique indicator used to identify the source of a product or service, and copyright law provides protection for books, videos, websites, paintings, software, apps, movies, and music. These laws are important not just to you, but to society, because they promote innovation by ensuring that the one who invests in them is the one that benefits from their work.  Providing legal protection to those who develop new ideas and inventions allows these ideas and inventions to be shared with others but to remain protected.  This helps the creator feel safe in sharing them and encourages innovation.

Your team has no doubt been working tirelessly on your project, so hopefully you are reassured to hear that there are laws in place that protect your creations.  Governments around the world create policies and laws to ensure that work just like yours is protected in a number of ways.  They sign international treaties along with other countries who together promise to adhere to copyright law.  They establish laws that cover specific types of intellectual property, such as software copyright (if you created an app, you’ll be happy to hear this!).  Legislators enact laws to protect their borders from pirated goods coming in or out through customs, they address more nefarious criminal operations with strong sanctions and tough consequences, and they ensure civil remedies are available to the public. 

It all might seem like a lot of mouse-type legalese and irrelevant -- until you’ve imagined and created something magnificent (we know you will) and realize it has value!  It’s important that the laws be watertight and without loopholes that allow someone else to benefit from your work without your permission or compensation.   It might be helpful to understand that laws vary from one country to another.  Do you think you might want to sell your invention in other countries?  What kind of laws are in place to protect intellectual property in your country?  How might you write a law to protect your invention?

The importance of IP rights is vast.  Strong laws are only as strong as the enforcement behind them.  Once the laws are in place, there needs to be a way to make sure that they’re followed.  This includes assigning people who are trained and responsible to enforce the law.  It includes allocating resources such as facilities and budget and training to know how to interpret and apply the law.  It means having court capacity to hear the cases and making it a priority to enforce intellectual property when the courts are backlogged with lots of other types of crime.  Once a case is filed, it means having judicial processes in place so that the case moves easily from one step to the next and doesn’t take years to resolve.  When a decision is made, there need to be sufficient penalties and consequences to dissuade the infringer from doing it again.  The best remedy, however, is prevention, when people are educated to understand and respect the value of IP!  Have you heard of IP cases tried in your country?  What kind of education might help others understand the rights and value of an IP creator?

Regardless of your team’s location or country, copyright laws are the way to protect the IP that you have created.  Your Imagine Cup entry will be exclusively yours in the eyes of the law, and that can mean big things for your future. The real magic behind the portfolio of IP rights is that they not only help you to succeed, but they help your community and economy.  For example, if your product is a success you may want to get paid for your idea, the people who sell your product could get paid, and you could create a business that would provide jobs for others.  Maybe your new creation will be wildly successful and your new company will need a CEO, a CFO, a manager, and a factory to build products.  These successes would not only benefit you but also carry the potential of employing people who will take this new invention from an idea into a product that will benefit society as a whole.  

There are many examples of past Imagine Cup competitors who have gone on to pursue commercial opportunities with their applications and there is no limit on what you and your team can accomplish!   Team Note-Taker, for example, won first place in Imagine Cup 2010 for their product in the Touch and Tablet category and have now taken their product (Note-Taker) to market. We encourage you to use the Image Cup as a stepping stone to fulfill your dreams and change the world – one intellectual property protected application at a time. 

For more information please check out these resources:



 If you are a teacher and interested in helping your students learn more about Intellectual Property, please visit the Digital Citizenship and Creative Content Curriculum.


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