Filling the Gaps: Intellectual Property Clinic

June 1, 2020

“That’s the kind of people we serve. People so dedicated to the success of their business that they would do a Zoom call from a broom closet.”

Rachel Ann Stephens 3L

This article is part of the Carolina Law spring-summer 2020 cover story on experiential learning, “Practice What We Teach: Filling the Gap Between the Classroom and Practice.”

Carolina Law boast 10 robust clinics.

A woman who ran a restaurant had a good idea she wanted to take to the next level. She couldn’t immediately make time to drive to Chapel Hill for an in-person consult with the school’s Intellectual Property Law Clinic, so Rachel Ann Stephens, a 3L, set up a Zoom interview. The woman logged on from the restaurant, but the clanging pots and other noise from the kitchen proved distracting. She moved to a quieter place — a supply closet — to continue the session.

“That’s the kind of people we serve,” Stephens said, “people so dedicated to the success of their business that they would do a Zoom call from a broom closet.”

The IP clinic’s clients aren’t necessarily indigent, Stephens said. They often just lack financial backers, particularly those with an idea for a startup or students wanting to run a business while still living in their dorms. Protecting business names, content or works of art can get complicated and expensive.

IP clients come from throughout North Carolina because the clinic is listed as a resource on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, said clinic director Zaneta Robinson. The IP clinic is certified by the USPTO, which allows students to practice trademark law before the office prior to passing the bar exam. The clinic does not file patent applications but will alert clients to any intellectual property that could potentially be protected.

Much of the work the IP law students do involves educating clients about the extent to which they own or can use intellectual property, whether it’s a business name, photo, slogan or logo.

Debbie Dibbert, Rachel Ann Stephens 3L, Kylie Norman 3L and Professor Tom Kelley at the Institute for Innovation launch. Photo by Ken Huth.

“For example, if someone has an idea for a mobile app, we’d advise them on what IP rights they might have, whether they have code, a process or a logo that could be protected,” Robinson said.

Stephens has heard plenty of stories about businesses using or attempting to protect their intellectual property incorrectly. As a native North Carolinian, she takes pride in her state and wants to foster its success.

“A lot of people we serve in the IP clinic live in North Carolina and want to stay here and make North Carolina better,” she said. “They have pride in North Carolina. The ability to advance their interests is super-important to me.”

— Nancy Oates

Read more from the spring-summer 2020 issue of Carolina Law magazine.