Pittsburgh-based attorney and alum Barbara Johnson ’79 presented an overview of intellectual property at the second Venture U of the semester. Venture U consists of a series of lectures that help students understand hot topics in the business world and provide students with the knowledge that will help them prepare for the annual Wolverine Venture Battle.

Intellectual property is especially important to the entrepreneur as it can add to the assets of a start-up, create a higher demand for a product/service, and protects an individual’s unique idea. Johnson focused on the three different types of intellectual property by providing case studies that covered issues that occurred within the realm of IP including copyright, trademark, and patent.


According to Johnson, an idea can be registered for copyright if it is an original work of authorship that is expressed within a tangible medium. Fair use was emphasized during the lecture as it allows a person to use a copyright-protected work, unlicensed if it falls under four levels of criteria:

  1. Purpose and character of the use
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work
  3. Amount of the copyrighted work used
  4. The economic impact of the use of the copyrighted work

The first case that Johnson presented was based on the question of copyright between Mike Tyson and Warner Bros. in 2011. The conflict resulted as one of the characters from the motion picture “The Hangover” featured Tyson’s signature tattoo without his consent. Could a tattoo really be copyrighted when the tattoo artist, Tyson, and the extent to the use of the tattoo are fully considered? Tyson’s copyright concern was affirmed by the legal system as legitimate but ended in a private settlement between the two parties.


The second case demonstrated a trademark dispute, which was ultimately decided by the Federal Supreme Court in 1938 over the most serious of topics: cereal. Shredded whole wheat cereal to be exact. After the original patent, registered by inventor Henry Perky, had expired Nabisco decided to buy the patent. A lawsuit soon resulted after Kellogg decided to make their own shredded whole wheat cereal. Nabisco countered that the term “shredded wheat” and the shape of the cereal was a trademark that could not be violated. Could a simple name for a cereal and its shape really be trademarked? The Federal Supreme Court ultimately did not think that the shape and name of “shredded wheat” could not be trademarked.

However, Johnson noted that if given the same case today the Federal Supreme Court would have decided a different outcome as brands mean so much more than they did in 1938 and trademarks get more distinctive.

“Trademarks need to be distinctive, not just descriptive,” said Johnson.


Currently, there are over 10 million patents recorded to date. Johnson claims that the criteria for patents is that the invention or technology is new, useful, and something that is not an obvious progress from a currently patented item.

The final case featured the patent of an engineering improvement to make paper. Essentially, the conflict was over whether the use of a gravity assist (wedge) on a conveyor belt to move paper pulp into its paper form could be considered a patent as other competitors seemed to by copying the method. Could a wedge really be patented? After all, it is considered a simple machine. In 1923, the Federal Supreme Court agreed that the improvement was a viable patent but compromised by allowing the patent to be upheld for a limited time.

The multiple cases discussed by Johnson point to the wide variety of intellectual property that can be considered from a tattoo to cereal to a wedge.

“You can find intellectual property anywhere,” said Johnson.

Further information on copyright laws can be found on Copyright.gov, while additional details on patents and trademarks can be viewed on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website.