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How a tech geek became one of the nation’s leading IP experts

By   /   June 7, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Ask a friend, a student, or even a colleague about Adam Mossoff, and they might tell you about his appreciation for motorcycles, his collection of Supreme Court bobblehead dolls, or even his love for the original Star Wars Trilogy.

He even admits that up until a few months ago, his two children were unaware of the prequel trilogy much-maligned by die-hard Star Wars fans, and they still have yet to see them.

“They’ve seen the original trilogy episodes more times than I can probably count,” Mossoff told Watchdog, jokingly calling it a “major parenting achievement.”

But his colleagues will also tell you about how he has become one of the most highly respected intellectual property law scholars in the country, tackling the fundamental questions of what constitutes a private property right and what the government’s role is in ensuring that right.

A June 2015 study conducted by Ted Sichelman, a law professor at the San Diego School of Law, for example, found that Mossoff’s 2003 article, “What is Property – Putting the Pieces Back Together“, was one of the top 25 cited articles on real property in the last 25 years.

Credit: George Mason University

PROPERTY PROF: Adam Mossoff teaches law at George Mason University School of Law.

As a law professor at George Mason University School of Law, located in Arlington, Virginia, and as the co-founder of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, Mossoff’s career keeps him close to the policymakers and lawmakers in the Washington, D.C. area.

Paul Michel, retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in an interview with Watchdog, praised Mossoff’s work as “extraordinarily important” and “nearly heroic,” not only because of his career focus, but also because his message is reaching the right audience through teaching courses and speaking on panels, writing op-eds, filing court briefs, and speaking with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

For example, Mossoff — along with 12 other law professors — recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a patent infringement lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard, stating that the Federal Circuit Court ruling contradicted 200 years of Supreme Court and Circuit Court precedents that patents are constitutionally protected private property rights.

“He’s talking to the people who make the rules,” said Michel.

Mossoff is an advocate for strong property rights, and one of the few academics taking on an essential role fighting against the big corporations waging a public relations and legal war to weaken the patent and copyright systems in their favor.

“[There are] many many different players in a large, complicated, interactive system, and Adam Mossoff has carefully laid out the roles of all of those different players in a way that’s understandable to nearly everyone,” said Michel, “and that provides a very important perspective.”

Mossoff’s roots, however, are thoroughly Midwestern, and early on in our conversation he used a farm analogy to drive home the point that property is more than just land – it’s also the ideas that create the inventions needed to farm the land.

Raised in Royal Oak, Michigan, a 20-minute drive away from Detroit, even his cell phone number still has a Michigan area code. The city is now “hip” and “cool,” Mossoff said, having experienced a surge of growth in the 2000s. But at the time he was growing up, he said, Royal Oak was a “classic, small, sleepy, little nondescript Midwest suburb,” where his father managed academic medical practices and his mother started and ran a small company, teaching him what it meant to own a small business.

A self-ascribed “tech geek”, Mossoff said his parents bought their first home computer — an IBM Personal System/2 (PS/2) — in 1987, although he had been using the school computers prior to the purchase. He marveled to Watchdog about how the innovations of the modern world have made technology once deemed science fiction come to life.

RELATED: New report offers proof that intellectual property protections are great for the global economy

He said that reading Ayn Rand at a young age, however, was an important influence on him, as were John Locke’s political theories on property – the same theories that influenced the Founding Fathers. While many tech geeks currently occupying academia have seemingly devoted their careers to furthering Silicon Valley’s agenda, Mossoff’s curiosity and inquisitive love of ideas lead him to study how theory applied to the real world.

After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Michigan and Columbia University, he would go on to earn his law degree from the University of Chicago School of Law.

The commercial pressure on Congress and the courts over smartphone patents and the narrative of a broken patent system is nothing new, Mossoff said. But what is new, he said, is a well-coordinated and well-funded public relations campaign dedicated to promoting that narrative and having it dominate at all different branches of government.

Many inventors license their inventions to manufacturers instead of going into business themselves. And the country has survived two centuries of patent wars waged over inventions such as sewing machines, telephones, electrical distribution systems, light bulbs, and even diapers, he said, and neither Congress nor the courts had changed basic patent doctrine.

“These were the same arguments in the telephone wars,” said Mossoff.

“Edison clearly fell within the definition of a ‘patent troll’ as it would be defined today – a person who just licenses their inventions and sells them,” he said. “[Nikolai] Tesla would have been accused of being a patent troll.”

Dave Kappos, former undersecretary of Commerce for intellectual property and director of the U.S.  Patent and Trademark Office, told Watchdog he hopes Mossoff’s future work includes more historical research into the importance of the nation’s patent system.

“His work matters because it holds the hope of keeping our country relevant,” said Kappos, a partner at Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP.

For Mossoff, IP is about the flourishing of a just society.

“I’ve dedicated my career to understanding what it means to protect and secure the creations of intellectual labors, of people’s fruits of their labors,” he said.

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Josh Peterson is a writer and award-winning reporter focusing on technology, politics, culture, and national security. His current areas of interest include Internet governance, intellectual property, civil liberties, space, minority issues, climate and the environment, surveillance, cybersecurity, energy, and artificial intelligence. A contributor to Watchdog.org, he is currently a Robert Novak Journalism Program Fellow and previously served as Watchdog.org's national technology reporter and the Daily Caller's tech editor.