A three-year partnership between the University’s Marketing 306 (Advertising and Promotion) course and FMCG company ZURU Edge raises some questions about students’ intellectual property rights. In March last year, ZURU Edge was invited to my class to present marketing briefs for their to-be launched products, including the Me period care brand which wouldn’t be launched until November 2020. As part of coursework, we had to create campaigns based on these briefs.
We were told by lecturer Dr Mike Lee that groups could submit their campaign to ZURU. Whichever group presented the best campaign would win a helicopter ride, a free lunch at the famous Coatesville mansion once owned by Kim Dotcom (now owned by ZURU CEO Nick Mowbray and his siblings), and potentially, the opportunity to work with ZURU.
Lee now admits that students have been handing over their IP to ZURU, while students were under the impression that they were entering a competition – a possible breach of University policy. To date, no evidence has been found that students’ work has been stolen. But a ZURU representative said they didn’t know whether or not students’ ideas were used by the company, when initially asked.
Students recall Lee adding that winning project ideas may also be used by the company. However students were not told that by submitting their assignments to the competition, that they would be forfeiting their IP rights with the potential that their ideas would be used in ZURU’s future marketing campaigns.
Launch of Me Raises Brows
We turned in our work five months before Me launched their product and campaign. While moodboards, fonts, colours and the logo were provided to us, conceptual marketing ideas that were similar to those of our work began appearing on Instagram, Me’s main marketing platform.
Although these ideas were not revolutionarily unique, they are similar enough to question whether or not it had been possible that students’ work was used. ZURU had run into previous IP lawsuits before when Lego took action in court for allegations of ZURU copying their designs. I was particularly concerned because news articles coming out at the time about ZURU’s success with consumer goods had been saying that “senior lecturer Mike Lee has been working with ZURU on the new product lines”, implying a private relationship between Lee and ZURU. Lee’s LinkedIn also lists ZURU as one of the brands that he has “collaborated with/served as a brand strategist/marketing consultant for”. When asked about this relationship, both Lee and a ZURU spokesperson denied that Lee had any private or contracted relationship with ZURU. Lee stressed that working for the company would mean he is getting paid. “I’m working with the company to set up these competitions. I’m not working for the company…I don’t get any financial benefit in any way or any other sort of benefits”. A ZURU spokesperson involved in the partnership, Liam Whittaker, says that he is confident that Lee isn’t extending his work beyond profiling ZURU to the University and providing an interactive industry interaction to the students. Lee’s reason for naming himself as a ‘consultant’ was that he teaches as if he is a consultant, not because he acts as a consultant to benefit ZURU, on his own at least. He agreed that the extent of his role as a marketing consultant for ZURU was by teaching his students and bridging ZURU with potential talent. Other than this, Lee does not spend his own time analysing the business and trying to improve it.
Lee felt it was ok that students’ work could potentially be used by ZURU. “It’s just providing options for everyone. So options for the company…they’re getting brainstorming and if they want to use it, then in my mind that was ok. But in [ZURU’s] mind maybe it’s too risky because [they] don’t want people to think [they’re] stealing ideas.” Whittaker was adamant that the benefit of this relationship was not about the ideas, but about the potential talent that is recruited from this competition.
Were ideas stolen?
To date, no evidence of this has been found. But when Whittaker was first asked about whether or not they could provide any assurances that students’ work was not used, Whittaker could not comment. “Have we taken inspiration from [the assignments]? I don’t know”. Whittaker followed up my requests for chronological evidence which confirmed that the planning for the influencer campaign and the ‘what’s in my bag’ photo shoot were planned before the assignment submission date.
However, according to Lee, it was possible that students’ ideas could have been used by ZURU for profit without the students’ informed consent. Lee confirms that there was nothing really stopping ZURU from being able to use students’ work, even as inspiration. Lee says the idea is that “[ZURU] use up their time,[…] resourcing and their prizes they offer, in exchange for a bunch of ideas”.
The people who judged the competition were not limited to the CEO and the HR team member, meaning that the exposure of the projects was greater than the few ZURU team members involved in the UoA partnership.
Whose Intellectual Property?
Lee believed that because the client provides information and resources and answers to questions through their own resourcing, the ideas belong to the course, rather than the student.
According to the University’s Intellectual Property Created by Staff and Students Policy, students are to be the first owners of copyright in their assessable work; do not relinquish their intellectual property rights by enrolling in a University course; and when needing to assign their IP rights to a third party, they should be given an explanation of the need, and have opportunity to seek independent legal advice.
In legal terms, copyright protects expressions of ideas like artwork, written items, designs and photos from being copied, but there is no protection under IP law for ideas alone, unless they are given in confidence. An IP Lawyer says that “it is a pity that the arrangements in the present case were not made crystal clear from the outset – especially from the perspective of the students.”
Lee defended that he told the class that “if you want to be considered, then you have to voluntarily email your ideas”. But the hyping of the competition and emphasis on the potential work opportunity at the end of the course shaded the notion that by entering the competition, students forgo their IP rights. This idea was not made clear. A student who felt that their work had been copied, interpreted that the trade off would be that winning the competition meant that students would be interviewed for a job at ZURU, and that way, ZURU would be given license to use the students’ ideas. “I felt a bit disheartened because I had put so much effort into it, but now it seems like ‘oh you used my ideas’ but I don’t feel like I was acknowledged for them… If they employed me and acknowledged [my project] then fair enough. [This] feels like a bit of a slap in the face. That wasn’t really the deal.”
ZURU’s Third Year with the University
Marketing 306 will be going into its third consecutive year of partnering with ZURU Edge. Lee started teaching this course in 2006 and has used other companies such as McDonalds and the New Zealand Rugby Union in previous briefs. When contacted as a University lecturer in 2018 by ZURU’s Global Marketing Manager, Lee commenced the course’s relationship with ZURU.
When asked why this relationship was much longer than others, Lee said that it’s because ZURU has been able to hire a student every semester and they have a lot of brands to work with. He also made a point about convenience. “Usually, companies approach me now, so I don’t need to chase [them]. And to be honest, I probably don’t have the time to just go looking for different companies”.
Whittaker was willing to allow other brands to take the place of this relationship if the course lecturer wished to have a change. A student who did the course in 2020 says that “Mike is trying to make it out [that] this is a win-win for both students and [the] company”. They believe that using a real-life company provided no further educational benefits for students: “I could have come up with a marketing strategy for Coca Cola, made up a $200,000 budget, and had the same learnings from the exercise”.
The Marketing 306 course is currently being run in Semester One and the competition is running with the first-place prize of an office tour, a lunch with the ZURU leadership team, an interview for a potential internship and ZURU products. Lee agreed that he needs to be clear that he is not getting paid, and to set up the assignment so that students can choose to submit their ideas as an academic assignment only, rather than submitting it to the ZURU competition where their ideas can be used. He wants to make clear that whether or not the assignment is submitted to the competition, it will not affect students’ grades. “I need to be very clear in the first class. I need to say it, but I also need to write it somewhere”.
Whittaker agrees that the expectations were not clear. “It’s not whether we could or couldn’t use the ideas. The question is, did we use the ideas? And then the learning is should or shouldn’t we? …If we do, it’s because [students] have consented to join that and you have the ability to decide whether you want to do that or not.”
Students in the course this semester have been given a four-page, legally binding Terms and Conditions document. On its third page, it states that by registering and submitting a project to the competition, the student and their team “understand and agree that ZURU may use ideas or strategies contained in [their project] for [ZURU’s] own commercial endeavours.” The student and their team waive any and all rights against ZURU, including the right to be identified as the author of the work. Additionally, students entering the competition are prohibited from sharing any of their views or opinions of ZURU on social media in relation to the competition, without first obtaining ZURU’s consent.
University’s IP Policy: https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/central/about/the-university/how-the-university-works/policy-and-administration/intellectual-property-created-by-staff-and-students-policy.pdf