Free (Steamboat) Willie: How Walt Disney’s original mouse could be entering the public domain

Some events are so bizarre and unique that it makes one consider the role of fate. Every once in a while, the stars align to create a moment so significant that it can alter the state of the world more than a century later.

That is what happened when Walt Disney met a very special mouse at the Laugh-O-Gram studio at the corner of Forest Avenue and 31st Street in the early 1920s.

New curriculum brings groundbreaking coursework to KU Law

University of Kansas law professor Andrew Torrance launched a legal analytics course last semester, allowing law students to set themselves apart in the workforce and think critically in real world situations.

“The law deals with every aspect of society, and increasingly numbers, statistics, data, especially big, big data, artificial intelligence — these approaches are becoming the favored way to interpret the world, including in the context of the law,” Torrance said.

Torrance's legal analytics course focuses on basic statistics and data analysis in law.

KU Law brings AI to the classroom

The University of Kansas School of Law, like a growing number of law schools across the nation, is starting to teach its students cutting-edge quantitative subjects such as data analysis and artificial intelligence.

This semester, Kansas law students had the first chance to take the “Legal Analytics” course taught by professor Andrew W. Torrance.

Litigation funder parabellum bets on big data to vet patent claims

As litigation funders look for an edge in analyzing the value of potential claims, Parabellum Capital LLC thinks it found one worth keeping away from its rivals.

New York-based Parabellum this week announced it had signed an exclusive license among litigation funders to use a software called PatentVector to help its team of underwriters more quickly scour companies’ patent portfolios—and determine if they are sitting on a treasure trove or just a bunch of bad patents.

Legal analytics class takes innovative look at tech, law

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

LAWRENCE — Big data and robot lawyers revolutionizing the legal profession may sound like something out of a law student’s abandoned side novel, but it’s real and happening now in law firms and courtrooms around the world. A new class at the University of Kansas is teaching future lawyers to understand statistics, data analysis, artificial intelligence and how they can challenge the very foundation of American justice.

“Legal Analytics” may not sound like the type of class to examine fundamental changes in how law is practiced by title alone, but the first-of-its-kind course focuses on how technology has already changed the field and how practitioners of the future can use it to their advantage in ways previously unimaginable.

Andrew Torrance, professor of law, Docking Faculty Scholar and Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor at KU, teaches the class and has spent his academic career bringing big data and scientific approaches to legal research. Many lawyers and law students can be scared off by the thought of math and statistics, but a general understanding can make them much more efficient, productive and valuable to their clients, Torrance said. The first half of “Legal Analytics” gives students a foundation in math and statistics, and with that foundation established, the second half moves on to how software, artificial intelligence and data analysis can change how they work.

“Math phobia is a real thing, but the class shows you can use it to your advantage without having a Ph.D. I try to make it fun and approachable in part by making it practical and showing how students can use it in their everyday practices,” Torrance said. “Because I do a lot of numerical analysis of law, I’ve used it in class more and more, and I found you have to spend time explaining the analysis. I thought it would be a good idea to have a course for any student interested, that wouldn’t scare anyone away with math. I feel like legal analytics is going to be a critical tool in a lawyer’s kit. In fact, in a lot of ways it already is.”

Mathematics and statistical analysis are already changing how law is practiced. In the late 1990s, e-discovery changed how lawyers worked. Where teams of young lawyers used to pore over hundreds of documents searching for data, software programs now do that and without getting tired or making the mistakes humans make, Torrance said. In the same way, the class is examining how data can point to all manner of trends. Lawyers, for example, can analyze every case a single judge has decided, find tendencies on how he or she tends to rule, what arguments they favor and prepare their cases accordingly. When asked how they can apply data analysis in their careers, students in the class pointed to being able to decide whether to spend their billable hours, clients’ money and courtroom arguments on motions that are likely to succeed or not, as shown by factual data.

In a recent class session, students viewed data from one of Torrance’s research projects. He had previously cataloged every American court decision on design patents from 1982 to 2015. As the level of court, ruling, year and other data were displayed, they discussed the ins and outs of aesthetics in intellectual property and what the findings can tell them about rulings in such cases. Having an understanding in data analysis will give them an advantage as lawyers in a number of ways, the students said. One plans to practice law as an Army JAG Corps attorney. Analysis of that system’s limited number of judges and deciding tendencies could provide invaluable insight quickly when preparing arguments. Another mentioned plans of working at the intersection of law and policy and being able to predict which type of policy would withstand legal challenges by analyzing reams of data and decisions on relevant cases in a short amount of time.

Perhaps nothing is speeding up legal processes more than artificial intelligence. The students have examined tools such as Robot Lawyer LISA, an online service that can draft nondisclosure agreements in about 20 minutes instead of multiple hours when done manually. is a website determined to help people argue traffic tickets and can provide numerous possible arguments for fighting such tickets depending on the type of infraction, where it was received and numerous other factors. Those types of tools were developed not by web programmers, but by people with legal backgrounds who understand technology and AI. Students with an understanding of technology and analytics will likely be the ones who develop the next revolutionary legal technology, Torrance said.

Legal analytics have the potential not only to introduce technology, but to fundamentally change how law is practiced. For decades, lawyers have devised legal strategy and given advice based on their own personal experience. While that approach is not inherently wrong, being able to analyze large amounts of data can yield new insights.

“You have to be careful because law often assumes causes,” Torrance said. “So we look behind the causes in law to see if we can understand the patterns. Analysis lets you look at things in a new light and help notice things you couldn’t from just experiencing a few cases.”

Today’s lawyers and those of the future also have the advantage of having nearly unlimited amounts of data at their fingertips. What would have taken countless hours of research can be done quickly via data analysis technology. And what is viewed as “common sense” can be examined further to determine if it is borne out by the facts or simply the view of a powerful minority. Torrance shared the example of analyzing crime statistics, sentence length, income level and other factors to determine if commonly held beliefs are in fact true.

“We live in a world awash in data, and it’s only increasing,” Torrance said. “Analytics makes the legal system more accessible, I think, and makes one lawyer more able to serve more clients effectively.”

Farmers Harvest Settlement in Syngenta Corn Lawsuit (Audio)

Margaret Cronin Fisk, a reporter for Bloomberg News, and Andrew Torrance, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, discuss a settlement under which Syngenta agreed to pay more than 100,000 farmers more than $1.4 billion after they complained that the marketing of the company’s genetically modified corn seeds shut them out of the Chinese market. They speak with Bloomberg’s Michael Best and June Grasso on Bloomberg Radio’s Bloomberg Law.

Professor analyzing decades of data to determine patent value

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

LAWRENCE — For more than two centuries, patents have been considered a key governmental policy tool for economic innovation. And for just as long numerous assumptions have been made about what they mean to an innovation’s value, where the most important ones are litigated and numerous other questions. A University of Kansas law professor is part of a project that is providing definitive answers to these and other patent questions for policy makers through a unique, big-data approach.

Andrew Torrance, the Earl B. Schurtz Research Professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, and colleagues have developed an approach to analyze mountains of detailed U.S. patent data from 1976 to the present day. One application of their research, commissioned by Canada's Ministry of Innovation, has been a comprehensive analysis of how patents having either Canadian inventors or owners compare with those without such connections. One of their most striking findings is that patents listing at least one Canadian inventor are more than 15 percent more valuable, on average, than other patents.

In a separate study, they have shown that litigated patents tend to be much more valuable than those that avoid court, and that federal courts in the southern midsection of the U.S. play host to litigations involving the most consistently valuable patents. Current studies involve comparisons of patent values of so-called “patent trolls” and companies whose goods or services are covered by their patents, an exploration of which parts of the U.S. give rise to inventors of more valuable patents, and which areas of technology give rise to the most valuable patents.

The U.S. Patent Office recently made decades of patent data available online. Torrance and colleagues Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington used this data to build a huge database which they can use to analyze the data from a myriad of perspectives. Through this approach, they hope to test many questions arising from the perceived wisdom about patents.

“We’ve put that data together in a giant database and added other data to it as well that includes information on every U.S. patent from 1976 until last Tuesday (the day new patent data is released by the United States Patent & Trademark Office each week),” Torrance said. “We have transformed it into an easy-to-use form that allows us to run many different types of analyses.”

The Canadian Ministry of Innovation approached Torrance to learn more about the value Canadian inventors add to American patents. Their goal was to learn more about how Canadian inventors and companies perform in the U.S. patent system. The data provided a number of fascinating insights possible only through a big data approach, including one that should make Canada quite happy.

“We found that, when you add a Canadian to a U.S. patent as an inventor, that patent tends to increase in value by more than 15 percent,” Torrance said. “When you add a generic, non-American from another country, the average patent value actually tends to go down. This raises intriguing questions about how Canada fosters more successful inventors.”

What’s not clear is why Canadian inventors tend to increase a patent’s value. It could be due to the particular technology fields in which Canadians tend to invent, characteristics of science and technology education in Canada, or Canadian skill at collaborating with other talented inventors, Torrance said. But he and colleagues are beginning to analyze the data to calculate the average values of patents generated by inventors from every other country to compare them all.

The findings are unique because the data they are drawn from was largely unavailable for decades, which forced people to make assumptions about the patent system and value of patents it issued. Additionally, because the data accessed is comprehensive, the analyses can provide objective answers based on all the data rather than just small random samples.

Torrance compared it to polling: Political polls ask a sample of people questions such as which candidate they plan to vote for, then report who has a lead, based on the representative sample of people they polled. That method, widely used in research for many years, can provide a good idea of the answer to a question, but it comes with built-in error margins. The method Torrance and his colleagues are using, however, gives definitive answers because it relies on all the data. It is akin to being able to access every voter and get a definitive answer on whom they voted for.

“Having these gigantic data sets finally allows us to answer questions about which, until now, people could only speculate – and often speculate wildly,” Torrance said. “Now we can formulate a question about patent law, such as, ‘How valuable do design patents tend to be compared to utility patents,’ write a software script to analyze our huge data set and then see what answer the data give. That simply was not possible before the era of big data.”

Torrance and colleagues have already submitted their preliminary analyses of Canadian inventors and patent owners to the government of Canada, which then hopes to use the resulting insights in future policy decisions regarding the Canadian patent system and how it influences innovation. Torrance and colleagues plan to publish these findings and plan to carry out many more analyses using their data.

“Our big patent data research should keep us busy for a while,” Torrance said. “There are myriad basic questions we can now answer.”

Two projects they’ve already begun are looking at the value of patents that are litigated and where litigation of the most valuable patents takes place. In the former case, there has long been a school of thought that holds patents that are litigated in court are not inherently more valuable than those left unlitigated but are acquired by companies with the resources to hire teams of attorneys to assert those patents against others in legal proceedings.

In the latter, it has long been assumed that most patents are litigated on the coasts, and that the middle of the country is a “patent flyover country” of sorts. Contrary to this assumption, the big patent data analysis has showed that both assumptions, though long-held, are extremely inaccurate. For example, the highest concentration of valuable-patent litigation occurs in the southern middle of the country, with the coasts and the north lagging behind. Publications are forthcoming on both topics.

Torrance was also recently named a senior fellow with the Center for International Governance Innovation, or CIGI, International Law Research Program. The international, nonpartisan think tank focuses on improving international governance through research on the global economy, global security and politics, and international law. The organization brings scholars from around the world together to provide governments information on innovation and how it can address problems such as human rights, avoiding war, fighting terrorism and poverty, improving development and the standard of living for people worldwide.

Torrance hopes his ongoing research, both into patent systems and user, open, collaborative and free innovation, through CIGI, will be valuable in contributing to CIGI’s goals and to questioning assumptions that may not survive rigorous scrutiny.

“It’s great to be able to ask basic questions, then look at the data and see what they say, compared to what the assumptions are,” Torrance said. “We’re already in the age of data and are increasingly able to answer questions that were infeasible to tackle before. My background is in science, and it’s gratifying to be able to apply the scientific method to legal questions, especially when the answers upend long-held, but unjustified, assumptions. This is a great way to improve the law.”

KU Today: Biology and law collide in award winner’s work

"Kansas University Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor Andrew Torrance has degrees in biology, genetics and law. He has taught at Harvard and MIT, and even advised President Barack Obama during his candidacy. He is truly a modern-day renaissance man.

'I really like dealing with cutting-edge science and the legal issues it raises,' Torrance said.

This spring, Torrance was recognized by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little for his talents, as one of four professors to receive the University Scholarly Achievement Award last year.

Citizens have right to improve technologies without fear of legal action, professor says

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

LAWRENCE — The time has come for a philosophical change in the way the American legal system, government and private business view innovations created by private citizens, a University of Kansas professor argues in a new law review article. “Citizen innovators” have the legal right to develop new and better technologies without fear of interference from overregulation and excessive intellectual property. The “right to innovate” flows from the U.S. Constitution, the common law, federal laws called “organic statutes” and presidential executive orders.

Andrew Torrance, Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor at KU School of Law and visiting scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his colleague, Eric von Hippel, T. Wilson Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, have co-authored “The Right to Innovate,” a Michigan State Law Review article that offers three approaches to protecting “citizen innovators” and their right to engage in noncommercial innovation to satisfy their own needs and to share their innovations freely for the betterment of society.

Technology has greatly leveled the playing field of innovation. Whereas private companies and government were formerly believed to create almost all new products and technologies, von Hippel’s pioneering economic research on “user innovation” has revealed that private citizens can, and do, also produce new medicines, medical devices, software, automotive improvements, educational methods and myriad other useful inventions in their own homes. As long as they are not endangering anyone or profiting from their work, their innovative activities are largely beyond the jurisdiction of regulatory agencies and intellectual property owners, the authors argue.

“Citizens have a robust legal right to innovate in all sorts of ways. From medical devices to drones, to better ways to irrigate fields, the sky is the limit,” Torrance said. “The pressure they face from government is unwelcome, chilling and often illegitimate. The right to innovate benefits all of society and is one of the rights of citizenship.”

The authors use the metaphor of “innovation wetlands” in their work. Historically in the United States, wetlands were viewed as barriers, wastefully unusable lands or even health hazards. They were denigrated at “malarial swamps” and feared as breeding grounds for diseases. The only good swamp was a drained or filled-in swamp. However, biological science eventually discovered they, in fact, provide numerous vital ecological amenities, such as cleaning water, providing refuge for migrating birds, acting as nurseries for young fish and buffering against floods. These discoveries in time led to the Clean Water Act of 1972 that protects wetlands.

Whereas private citizens who develop their own products and improve existing products, were long thought to pose nuisances or cause harm to businesses and government, a vast body of empirical evidence now shows that citizen innovation is, in fact, greatly beneficial to society, Torrance says. Some studies suggest that most useful innovation originates from noncommercial citizen innovation rather than corporate and governmental research and development efforts.

Torrance shares the example of NightScout, a group of software engineers who successfully hacked a Food and Drug Administration-approved medical device designed to make careful measurements of blood sugar in individuals with Type-1 diabetes. NightScout then was able to improve the device by allowing its output to be viewed on any smartphone via a custom-written app. Using this app, loved ones could monitor the blood-glucose levels of their children, spouses or friends. In fact, NightScout is named after the need to monitor blood-glucose levels of Type-1 diabetics while they sleep – a dangerous time for these people due to the constant threat of falling into a diabetic coma, or dying, while asleep. Though the technology was made available to anyone for free, the FDA initially tried to stop such innovation, which they see as potentially dangerous. In the end, the FDA seemed to conclude that they lack jurisdiction to stop such innovation.

“Even the FDA realizes there is not much you can do to stop citizen innovation. If you think about it from an ethical perspective, regulatory agencies should generally celebrate, not try to stop, such improvements,” Torrance said. “As a default position, government agencies often assume they have the legal right to stop citizen innovation. A proper reading of the law, including both constitutional and venerable common law principles concerning commerce, liberty, autonomy, privacy, free association and free speech, shows this socially harmful attitude to be legally unjustified. The right of citizens to innovation to satisfy their own needs, and then freely share their innovations with others, is quite strong.”

Private companies do need governmental permission when developing new technologies because they intend to profit from them. If money crosses state lines in association with such innovation, regulatory agencies do have jurisdiction over such activities. Noncommercial citizen innovation, however, is largely free of such oversight.

Citizen innovators often abandon inventing when faced with governmental scrutiny or legal action because they are either unaware of their rights or lack the resources to hire attorneys to defend them. This sort of overregulation and overlitigation stifles innovation and harms society, the authors argue. To combat this chilling effect, the authors include a “toolkit” for innovators to help them understand their rights.

The toolkit outlines the right to liberty; privacy; First Amendment rights to free speech, press and association; the Fourth Amendment, and rights reserved to the people, among other legal principles protective of citizen innovation. Innovators often are not aware of their rights, such as a right to privacy, which discourages governments and others from prying into activities carried out in citizens’ own homes. Knowledge of those rights is vital as there are millions of citizen innovators, and their activities vastly outweigh those of all private and governmental research and developmental employees combined, Torrance said.

The authors also outline common law rights that protect innovation among private citizens, discuss ways in which governments should account for the benefits of citizen innovation and the costs of overregulating it, in their own cost-benefit analyses, and the benefit of designing regulations that citizen innovators can comply with at very low costs.

Technology has rapidly evolved, drastically changing the paradigm of innovation.  As von Hippel has written, this has “democratized” innovation. Whereas only government or academics were able to access computers and sophisticated technical equipment in the past, people can now program software on their smartphones, scan and replicate physical objects at home, and even engage in biotechnological research and development once impossible outside expensive laboratories. Torrance and von Hippel argue it is time for the law to evolve and recognize that a “democratization of innovation” is not only legal, but it is beneficial as well.

“The fact that innovation is coming from new sources is wonderful for society,” Torrance said. “But the legal system is better at crushing citizen innovation than fostering and protecting it. What Eric and I are concerned about is that, if you don’t recognize this vital source of innovation, and protect it from overregulation and overzealous application of intellectual property, you risk destroying it just as we used to destroy wetlands. In both cases, we need to celebrate these valuable amenities and enlist the law to ensure they survive and thrive.”

KU law school to host nation’s leading annual patent scholarship conference

Thursday, April 09, 2015
LAWRENCE — Infectious diseases kill more than 10 million people each year, most of them in the developing world. The high cost of life-saving drugs is one barrier to treatment. Should strong patent protection, which drives up pharmaceutical prices, keep people from getting the medicine they need to survive?

It’s one of many questions that scholars will explore during the fifth annual Patent Conference on April 10-11 at the University of Kansas School of Law. Patent scholars from nearly a dozen countries and four continents – in law, economics, management science and other disciplines – will share the latest research on patent law, policy and business. The program is free, and registration is not required.

Plenary speakers include Colleen Chien, Santa Clara law professor and former senior adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Eric von Hippel, economist and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and A. Christal Sheppard, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office satellite branch in Detroit.

“One of the most exciting aspects of PatCon is the opportunity not only to share bleeding-edge patent research but also to hear the debates this research spurs among the leading patent experts who attend,” said Andrew Torrance, professor of law and co-founder of the conference. “For example, one of the hottest topics in patent law today involves so-called ‘patent trolls’ and how they either promote or harm innovation. In fact, many of the scholars at PatCon have signed one of two competing letters sent to Congress just two weeks ago raising serious concerns about trolls.”

Other topics will include the role that patents play in inequality, international patent issues, patent policy, how to value complicated property rights like patents, whether patents promote or crush innovation, and exploding interest in design patents.

“Another exciting phenomenon is the rise of ‘big patent data,’ which scholars are increasingly using to answer fundamental questions about the patent system and even to challenge long-accepted legal doctrines,” Torrance said. “Some of the leading ‘big patent data’ experts will be presenting their latest, often surprising, results at PatCon.”

The School of Law hosted the inaugural Patent Conference in April 2011. Affectionately known as PatCon, the conference has snowballed into the country’s leading annual patent scholarship conference. It rotates among the law schools of its founding professors: Torrance; David Olson, Boston College Law School; David Schwartz, Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Ted Sichelman, University of San Diego School of Law.

The program is co-sponsored by the KU School of Law, Hovey Williams LLP and Lathrop & Gage LLP.

Preview the schedule and speakers.


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