CTIC Fellows discuss their law and tech scholarship and what’s next for them

  • CTIC Fellows Bryan Choi and Camilla Hrdy received full-time academic positions in law and technology.
    Science Photo Library

Penn Law’s two Fellows with the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition, Bryan Choi and Camilla Hrdy, will be taking full-time academic positions next year. Choi has taken a joint appointment at the College of Law and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Ohio State University; Hrdy will be an assistant professor at the University of Akron Law School. Penn Law talked with both outgoing fellows about their time at the Law School, their research, and what’s next for them.


Bryan Choi, CTIC Fellow

Penn Law: Can you tell us a bit about the CTIC Fellowship?

Bryan Choi: This fellowship is a one- or two-year fellowship geared toward helping junior scholars develop. The project I’m currently involved with is funded by an NSF/Intel grant; I’m working on security and privacy issues in cyber-physical systems — such as self-driving cars, interoperable medical devices, and smart homes. In other words, you have physical components being managed by a cyber-network. We want to prevent accidents; we want our personal data to be kept private. At the same time, things are going to go wrong. Perfect prevention is impossible. How should we handle these situations where it’s not just a file that’s lost but a life? I’m looking at how technologists and lawyers can work together and learn from each other on these types of issues.

My background is in both technology and law. I have a bachelor’s in computer science and then I did my JD. I have written on privacy, anonymity, and intellectual property. That dual training allows me to approach research questions with an understanding of both perspectives. How does the software technology actually work, and what are the mechanisms by which law can channel the development and use of that technology.

PL: Where does the law stand in relation to these new technological developments?

BC: I think the initial instinct is always to ask: “Is there something new here?” One side will say: “This is revolutionary and nothing like this has ever come along before. We need to throw out the old manual and reinvent the wheel.” And others will respond: “No, this is exactly the same as before. We don’t need to do anything differently. We don’t need to change any of the rules — in fact, we can just apply the same rules as before.” Usually the answer lies somewhere in between. Figuring out how to calibrate the legal response is where I see myself bringing value.

Take cars, for example. Some people thought cars were just like horses and that no new rules needed to be written. Others went the opposite extreme and thought those who wanted to drive cars were adrenaline chasers. They said: “You’re assuming the risk of driving a car. You know it’s an extremely dangerous object. If you want to drive a car, fine, but if you die as a result, that’s on you.”

Over time, as cars became mainstream, we realized that, actually, neither is the model we want. Too many people are dying. People who aren’t experts at this; just ordinary, average citizens who are getting behind the wheel and getting hurt. So then we developed a whole set of car-specific rules that don’t necessarily generalize to other technologies or other contexts.

With self-driving cars and automated medical devices, software is poised to have everyday physical consequences in a way that software on your PC or phone does not. We’ve had this notion for awhile now that software someday might have physical consequences. In science fiction, whether it’s the Terminator or HAL from 2001, we worry about the ways in which computers might become our overlords — especially to make decisions that kill. So those doomsday concerns have been circulating in the background.

The opposite take is that we already have complex regulatory schemes developed for both cars and medical devices, so maybe we can just extend those to the automated versions without much adjustment. My view is that there is a mix of familiar and new elements. And the new element here is: how much control are we willing to hand over to computers and to software? How much do we trust that technology?

PL: Can you talk about what the next step for you is?

BC: I have just accepted a joint appointment at Ohio State with the College of Law and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. The university recently launched a major initiative centered on Big Data, and they are in the process of recruiting a large number of faculty to do interdisciplinary research in this space. My position was created to forge closer ties between the law school and the computer science/engineering department. This is a natural fit on so many levels, and I am very excited to see the opportunities it will open up. Ideally we will start to see more of these law-and-computer-science positions open up across the country.

PL: How did your CTIC Fellowship prepare you for your new position?

BC: This fellowship happened to fit the exact set of attributes Ohio State was looking for. On the law side, I have received close attention and mentorship from Christopher Yoo [the CTIC Director] and other members of the law faculty. On the engineering side, I have been collaborating directly with computer scientists on the cyber-physical systems project. That combination set me up very well for the interview process. I think this will become more common going forward — schools will be looking for people who are fluent in both law and computers. Having the opportunity to do that interdisciplinary work here allowed me to have the right kinds of conversations, to ask the right kinds of questions, and to be doing research that people are interested in developing and cultivating going forward.


Camilla Hrdy, CTIC Fellow

Penn Law: Can you talk about how you came to Penn Law?

Camilla Hrdy: I went to Berkeley Law, then I clerked for Judge Janis Graham Jack at the Federal District Court of the Southern District of Texas, Corpus Christi Division. Then I was a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, where I wrote my first article, and that launched me on a path toward being a legal scholar and wanting to be a legal academic. Thereafter, I got a fellowship at Yale Law School, first a visiting fellow, then a resident fellow there for two years. From there, I got the opportunity to finish out being a fellow here at Penn Law. I was given what was, to me, an opportunity I could not refuse — to co-teach patent law with Polk Wagner. Penn Law was willing to let me co-teach, and that was a huge draw. I’ve more than gotten what I wanted out of this — it’s been amazing.

PL: In addition to the teaching, can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve been doing at the Law School?

CH: I’ve written many articles since arriving. My first article, “Commercialization Awards,” was about public finance alternatives to patents as a way to promote commercialization of new technologies. I showed that both states and the federal government have various award programs where entrepreneurs or inventors of new inventions can get funding from the government to help them start new businesses and commercialize new technologies. And I argued that, counterintuitively, these incentives could actually be performing a similar function to patents in the sense that they’re giving people an incentive to commercialize, i.e. to bring inventions to market that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I argued that in some ways, though they have costs as well as benefits, these public financing incentives could actually be superior to the alleged commercialization function of a patent. That piece was in the Wisconsin Law Review.

I also wrote a response in the Yale Law Journal Forum with Ben Picozzi responding to a constitutional law argument about the nature of patent claim construction.

I subsequently wrote two articles in the year I went on the market. One is going to be published in the Lewis & Clark Law Review — it’s called “Cluster Competition.” It’s about local innovation clusters: state and local government’s efforts to promote innovation and how this interacts with the federal government’s innovation policy — what the federal government’s role should be in managing local government’s efforts.

My job talk paper, which I’m actually working on the final edits for right now, for Berkeley Tech Law Journal, is called “Patent Nationally, Innovate Locally.” It’s a “swing for the fences” piece trying to determine what the role of both federal and local government should be in both intellectual property law and innovation finance. It’s a huge structural, theoretical piece with a descriptive component. It’s a massive project — I bit off a lot. That’s in the works.

I just submitted another article on state regulation of patents. That’s the kind of stuff that I’m doing in my research time. Teaching-wise, I’ve loved co-teaching patent law with Professor Wagner. Now I’m teaching Trade Secrets here, as well as co-teaching Writing about the Law with Professor Roosevelt.

PL: Where will you be heading next?

CH: I was very fortunate and very happy and thrilled that I received an offer from University of Akron Law School. I will be going there next year, starting as an assistant professor, and that is a tenure-track position. I’ll be teaching intellectual property law — I just received my first-year courses, and they’ll be trade secrets and trademarks on the IP side, and I got my first-choice for a first-year class, which is civ pro, so I’m excited about that.

PL: What do you imagine next for your research?

CH: My scholarship is very focused on this particular issue of the local government’s role in innovation policy, including intellectual property law. Besides writing on patent law and patent preemption, I foresee writing some more papers on trade secrets and trademarks, which both have state law components. I’m very excited to do that. I see myself at the intersection of intellectual property law and local government law.

Akron is a great place to do that kind of work. Both the university and the jurisdiction have a very heavy focus on promoting innovation in the region. There are a bunch of programs that are relevant to my research.

PL: How has the CTIC Fellowship helped your academic career?

CH: I really can’t emphasize enough how important these two years have been for making me ready for my new position. Getting the chance to teach has been incredible.