How playing video games inspired my journey into Intellectual Property law

Dr Yin Harn Lee is a senior lecturer in law at Bristol and her area of expertise is in intellectual property law. In this blog, Yin Harn discusses how she embarked on a love for IP law through a non-conventional route, and how this could be an interesting area for you to explore in your career.

How did you end up specialising in copyright law and in particular, in relation to video games?

Well, this is because I had very long summer holidays, and during the holidays I was playing video games and was interested in modifying them, so making them do something a bit different from how they were originally designed. That led me to a lot of legal questions, such as is any of this allowed? And if it’s not allowed, should it be allowed? And what does this actually mean in terms of people’s ability to work creatively with existing video games?

“So, when parents say playing video games will never get you anywhere, you can tell them that’s not exactly true.”

Why did you choose to come to Bristol to teach?

I came to Bristol because it’s very well known as a research-intensive institution that values research alongside excellent teaching. There was a key group of colleagues that were interested in information technology law and intellectual property law, and we all do different things. But things are related enough that we can talk to each other and really bounce and spark interesting ideas off each other. That was what attracted me to Bristol intellectually, and in terms of career development.

How have you developed your research since coming to Bristol?

In terms of further research, I have previously looked at copyright on video game modifications. I’m now working on another project also about video games, but this is about the cultural preservation of video games. What we want to do is look at questions around how would a museum, for example, preserve a video game for future generations? What does it mean to preserve a video game? Are we only dealing with the code, or do we want, for instance, to also preserve some sense of how it was received by the public and how people engage with it? This raises a lot of complex, but also really interesting legal and even social questions. On that project, we have got the support of the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, which is excellent, and we look forward to working closely with them.

What advice would you give a student looking to forge a career in intellectual property law? 

If a student wishes to forge a career in either intellectual property law or perhaps information technology law, I would advise having a really good grounding in the foundations of legal knowledge, because that student will need to be able to engage with contract law, standard property law and even trust law – so all areas of basic legal knowledge. And then to build up that knowledge and become more specialised by studying intellectual property law and information technology law, obviously.

Another area of importance is to develop a strong sense of commercial awareness.

“How will intellectual property and information technology law affect commercial dealings, the overall business environment and perhaps even the overall social environment?”

And then be able to reflect critically on how these would translate into issues that need to be addressed by the law, how these would translate into challenges that people will need lawyers to overcome. That is all really important, and students should develop that by wider reading on all of these issues, following for instance technology blogs, intellectual property scholars on social media and so on. There are so many of us. And importantly, I think what would be helpful for students at more advanced levels of study is to try and get a vacation scheme or mini pupillage in a solicitor’s firm or barrister’s chambers that specialises in this area so that you can really see the law in action.

Your research spans many areas, how interdisciplinary in nature is IP law?

My own work is inevitably becoming more and more interdisciplinary in nature because we have to engage not only with computer scientists when we’re dealing with computer programmes and digital art, but also with the art world when talking about more conventional forms of art. We need to talk to musical composers and understand how they see the process of composition. We need to engage in the kind of literary and film world production practices around TV and film to understand how intellectual property law fits in there.

So, in that sense, my work is inevitably interdisciplinary.

 

What do you see as the future for IP law in relation to video games? 

In terms of how I see my own research on copyright and video games and indeed intellectual property and video games evolving, I think it’s only going to become an area of greater and greater interest to people in the future. We’re already seeing that video games which were previously thought of as some sort of niche entertainment, taking a bigger and bigger market share in terms of the overall entertainment sector. The routine use of them outstrips film and television on a regular basis.

People are beginning to see the kind of social and cultural influences that video games have, especially over the last year with the pandemic, when people have been at home. One of the main ways of entertaining oneself and also communicating with others is through video games and especially the large online video games like Minecraft and Fortnite. I think people are becoming more and more aware of these issues, and therefore there will be greater interest in this field in future years.

Do you still play video games – and are you rare as an academic working in this field?

Well, this is a very sad question, because since I started researching video games, I have not had time to play any. But in terms of what I used to like to play, (which was so long ago, that it is now fashionable) are classic isometric role playing games like Baldar’s Gate, which I used to mod by BioWare, including Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Whether I’m rare in being a lawyer who mods or used to modify video games, I would like to think not, because when I was more active in the video game modification scene than I am currently now, I met all sorts of people from all walks of life. Granted, they were the usual suspects, like computer scientists – people who were themselves professional video game developers. But you also got surprising people like a schoolteacher from Portsmouth that I worked with. You can get all kinds of unexpected people in that scene. While I’m currently the only lawyer I know who does this, or used to do it for fun, I’m sure there are more of them out there, I just need to hunt them down – in a nice way.

Have you seen an increase in students with computer science degrees moving into law/IP? 

If you study law and then go on to do something else such as computer science, I do see that becoming more popular, although I’m more familiar with it the other way around – a computer science student, then deciding to study law. I think there are some natural connections in that sense because both of these areas depend on a certain kind of logic. Computer science has a certain logic to it. Law has a certain logic to it. And while the logics are not identical, you do get a sense that you’re working up something from first principles.

“If you are a student who has a strong interest in intellectual property law, I think going into one of the related fields like computer science is a very natural career path.”

I do think more students will be undertaking this kind of flexible way of studying in the future.


Further information

Find out more about studying intellectual property law at the University of Bristol, by exploring our undergraduate and postgraduate courses that allow you to tailor your degree with our diverse range of optional units.

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