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Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic promotes justice by supporting innovation

July 26, 2020

For University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Practice Professor of Law Cynthia Dahl, intellectual property law is an instrument of equality.

“I strongly believe in the power of IP to incentivize innovation, and disparities in economic opportunity lurk behind so many issues of injustice,” Dahl said. “By supporting fledgling companies, which then create jobs and build economic value in communities, IP attorneys can have a powerful impact.”

This is why Dahl came to Penn Law as the inaugural director of the Law School’s Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic, where students have the opportunity to assist a range of creative thinkers with all of their patent, trademark, and copyright-related needs. Clients include individual inventors, early-stage startup companies, artists, non-profits, and even Penn itself, as it commercializes pioneering Penn-invented technologies through spin-off entities.

For clinic alum Kevin Matthews L’21, the social justice implications of his clinic work were clear.

“The two clients I had were very different, but both faced a variety of IP issues that entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations often face,” Matthews said. “These issues can be complex and difficult to understand, and those with limited funds can be taken advantage of by more sophisticated parties.”

Matthews saw his role as helping to level the playing field.

“I believe the IP Clinic allows people with great ideas to focus on their strengths and contribute to art and culture while student-counselors are there to look out for potential pitfalls,” he said.

Clinic alum Mia Cabello L’20 agreed, recalling that a highlight of her clinic experience was holding public office hours at the Business Resource and Innovation Center at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“It was so rewarding to meet with entrepreneurs and inventors in the early stages of developing an idea,” Cabello said. “I had a great time discussing with them how the strategic use of IP protections and other legal tools could help them succeed.”

Students learn at least as much as they teach in the clinic, with every case requiring students to quickly become an expert on a different body of substantive law.

“The learning curve was really steep at first because everything was so new to me,” recalled Emily Losi L’21. “Eventually, though, I felt confident enough in my knowledge to advise my clients on how to move forward. It taught me that the best way to learn something is to just fully immerse yourself in it.”

“The ‘learning by doing’ model is incredibly valuable,” Sarah Marmon L’21 concurred. “One of the best experiences I had was writing a response to a refusal to register a trademark. My partner and I conducted the research, wrote and edited the arguments, and then led the call with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Examiner in charge of the file. I learned so much by getting to take on substantive legal work at such a high level of responsibility.”

While clinic students enjoy considerable independence, they also reported that working closely with Dahl was among the most valuable parts of participating in the clinic.

“Working with Professor Dahl is what makes the IP Clinic great,” said Cabello. “She truly values student development at every stage of the clinic experience, provides substantive feedback on all work, encourages dialogue on legal issues, and places a premium on client relationships and professionalism that prepares students for practice. Plus, she has a knack for assembling a group of smart, creative good-natured 2Ls and 3Ls with diverse interests and backgrounds who love working and learning together.”

They also love working with their clients.

“When the USPTO approved our trademark for publication, I might have actually shouted with joy,” said Matthews. “My client’s marks were in a very complex industry and we were concerned that there might be confusion around what the services were.”

Over the years, clinic students have helped clients launch groundbreaking inventions, such as the flushable pregnancy test, which was named one of the best inventions of 2018 by Time magazine. The test was developed by an inventor concerned with creating a test that could be truly private, as well as environmentally sustainable. Another client developing novel applications of ionization technology has recently been tapped by the Defense Logistics Agency to develop a product for hospitals and other healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients.

Clinic students also regularly assist clients using the arts to make a difference in their communities, including a documentary filmmaker focused on ecological issues and a performance art collective making a piece about the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

Some clients, like one nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for incarcerated musicians, are repeat customers.

“A lot of the folks that take part in this group’s program were musicians before they were incarcerated, and they’re quite talented,” said Dahl. “The program matches them with musicians who are not in prison, and they create music together, and the music is then performed outside of prison. By sharing this music with the public, the program helps incarcerated people send their voice out into the world in addition to providing a creative outlet and joy to people inside and outside prisons.”

The clinic maintained a relationship with the group over several semesters, once helping them when they wanted to produce an album of co-created works.

“They ran into so many issues of ownership with this album that was collaboratively created with incarcerated artists, who may or may not be able to contract,” Dahl said. “We had to figure out if and how the artists could be paid for their contributions. Then there was a worry that some of the lyrics would be flagged as potentially ‘problematic’ by the prisons, so we dealt with a bunch of First Amendment issues as well.”

The diversity of the clinic’s clientele is by design. It is important to Dahl that students become fluent in languages other than law.

“My students have to straddle the worlds of business and tech and science and the arts,” she said. “They’re working with people in medicine, design, and engineering. The more they practice communicating with people in other fields, the stronger they’re going to be as practitioners, because I think that’s where legal work is going – it’s increasingly interdisciplinary.”

Clinic alums have already begun to reap the career benefits of Dahl’s foresight. Some have gone to Los Angeles after graduation to work in entertainment law. Many have gone to New York to work with early-stage technology companies. One of Dahl’s former students was even a part of the team currently litigating the high-profile copyright case Oracle v. Google before the Supreme Court of the United States.

“The IP Clinic is a one-of-a-kind experience at Penn Law,” said Cabello, who is beginning her legal career with a fellowship at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It was the most meaningful experience I had in law school and has, without a doubt, impacted my career trajectory. The IP Clinic helped me develop my counseling style, determine what type of law I wanted to practice, and left me confident in my ability to bring value to a legal team.”