Society is increasingly dependent on information-based goods. The field of intellectual property is constantly changing and evolving. Intellectual property laws aim to find the right balance between protecting creative output without dissuading follow-on creativity and innovation.
Exploring that question is what led Deepa Varadarajan to pursue a legal career studying intellectual property. After earning her J.D. from Yale Law School, Varadarajan was a judicial clerk in the Eastern District of New York and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and also went on to work several years in private practice. In both her clerkship and in practice, she worked on various intellectual property cases.
“I knew my heart was in academia because I had these bigger questions about how different areas of IP fit together and the underlying policy goals behind these laws,” Varadarajan said. “When you’re in practice, you don’t get to linger on the bigger questions for very long.”
Varadarajan is an assistant professor of legal studies in the Department of Risk Management & Insurance at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business, with a secondary appointment at the College of Law. Intellectual property, which includes copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets, might be more difficult to define than physical property, but it is just as present in our lives.
“A lot of students in both the business school and law school have an interest in starting their own businesses, in being entrepreneurs, and if that is their ambition, it’s important to know about intellectual property law,” she said.
Varadarajan’s scholarship focuses on intellectual property laws as a source of legal and economic risk for businesses, entrepreneurs, employees, and consumers of information-based products. In recent years, she has studied how trade secrecy laws can make it harder for employees to move between jobs. Because the boundaries of trade secrets are hard to pin down, firms often accuse employees of taking trade secrets with them when they leave to start their own businesses or go work for competitors.
“What does that do to an employee’s incentives to leave and engage in startup activities and other innovative work? Trade secrecy laws do not prevent employees from using their own knowledge, skills, and experience in their new endeavors. Yet finding that dividing line between trade secrets that legitimately belong to a firm and an employee’s own knowledge, skill and experience has been a real challenge for courts, and firms have been aggressively litigating these issues.”
More recently, Varadarajan has been researching the intersection of trade secrecy and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In last summer’s Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader decision, the Supreme Court expanded the private sector’s ability to shield from public view “confidential” commercial information provided to the government. This decision will likely make it harder for journalists and watchdog groups to access and report on information relevant to the public interest.
While the facts of intellectual property law cases may be technical at times, Varadarajan says that students shouldn’t be intimidated by this area of the law. She enjoys challenging her students to explore what the right balance for intellectual property laws should be, and she enjoys being challenged by her students to see new viewpoints as well.
“I always find it interesting to see how students view the rights of creators and innovators, and how they should be balanced against the rights of follow-on innovators and the public,” she said. “I’ve been studying these issues for a long time, so I’ve developed a set of views about what the law should look like and being challenged with a different set of views is thought-provoking and fun.”
Written by Mara Thompson