Profiles: Ryan Vacca


Friday, March 19, 2021

Ryan Vacca

Professor Ryan Vacca’s journey shows how you can find your own place in the legal community. He forged his career in the intellectual property education space, but was not afraid to step out to find ways to improve how the federal court system works. Also, learn how taking a class, titled "Murder," was the spark for him to study law.

Professor Vacca shares his journey in the latest edition of Profiles Podcast, where we get to know the Powerhouse people at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. Produced and Hosted by A. J. Kierstead

Learn more about Professor Vacca: https://law.unh.edu/person/ryan-vacca 

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Read the Transcript

A. J. Kierstead:

Professor Ryan Vacca's journey shows how you can find your own place in the legal community. He forged his career in the intellectual property education space, who was not afraid to step out to find ways to improve how the federal court system works. This is Profiles, the special series of the podcast, The Legal Impact, where you get to know the powerhouse people at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. UNH Franklin Pierce is now accepting applications for JD graduate programs and online professional certificates. Learn more and apply at law.unh.edu.

A. J. Kierstead:

So Ryan, where does your educational journey begin that set you on your path? I was really interested in your undergrad major and what impact that had.

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah, so I did my undergrad at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts, and there I studied, I was a double major. I studied computer science and what was called law jurisprudence and social thought. And so what happened was I was originally planning on going to college to study computer science and my original thought was, "Oh, I'll go and I'll get a PhD in computer engineering or something, or software engineering, and go work in industry and that'll be that."

Ryan Vacca:

During my, I guess, it had been my sophomore year of college, I actually tried to sign up for a course on, it was punishment or something like that, like law and punishment or something. It was a political science course. And as it turned out, it was a seminar course for juniors and seniors and I was only a sophomore. And so the professor who taught it wrote me a note and said, "I'm sorry, I can't let you in the course, but I have another course that's kind of similar called Murder."

A. J. Kierstead:

I love the course names. Those are great course names.

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah, yeah, Murder was the name of the course. And it was a hugely popular course. It was always fully, most popular course there. And so I said, "Okay, great, so I'll take that." And so I took the course and I just became fascinated with law at that point, because we were looking at the law murderer through various lenses through political lens and philosophical lens and racial lenses and gender lenses and all sorts of stuff like that. And it was really fascinating.

Ryan Vacca:

So I started taking some other courses within the department, the LGST law jurisprudence and social thought department. And just as I took more and more courses, I just sort of fell in love with law more and more. By the time I was doing that, I was basically finished with the computer science degree, but that is sort of what led me into my area of expertise in IP, which is that I was really trying to figure out how sort of law and technology interacted and that's what led me to law school eventually.

A. J. Kierstead:

I mean, what was your law school experience like?

Ryan Vacca:

Law school was great. I loved law school. When I was still in undergrad, we had a guest speaker. It was Larry Lessig from Harvard Law School came and he had just written a very influential book called Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. And so he was presenting the book and I was like, wow, this is exactly what I want to think about and do. And so I applied to law schools and got in and went and I loved it. It was a great opportunity to sort of see how all of these pieces kind of work together or don't work together to create a system that works or doesn't work and needs refining. And so I was really fascinated. I took many intellectual property courses while I was in law school. And then eventually went on to practice in that area and in other areas as well.

A. J. Kierstead:

Yeah, what I've found interesting about your angle and intellectual property is I feel like we have a lot of the inventorship and brand new patents, traditional patents and things like that, but you seem to have a different sort of focus compared to that.

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah. I mean, to a certain extent, I focus on some of the traditional aspects, but I look at kind of some cutting edge technologies, as well. I think part of that is inherent in looking at IP law, I mean, especially on the patent side is that you're always dealing with new technologies, because that's what you get patents on. But some of my research in the past is focused on genetically modified seeds and that was really sort of big several years ago and kind of looking at some of the implications there. I've looked at 3D printing in the copyright space before and that was and is still kind of a very interesting and cutting edge issue, but it's fun too. I mean, that's one of the things that I really enjoy about IP is that you get to work with these new technologies and think about what's coming, what's in the future and how can this affect things in good and bad ways.

A. J. Kierstead:

What was it like practicing for those few years before you decided to go into teaching, which we'll put a pin in that for now?

Ryan Vacca:

Sure. Practice was fun. I really enjoy practice. I had a mix of sort of practice areas. So I did IP work. I spent a lot of my time actually doing a lot of products liability defense work and representing companies in asbestos and welding fumes and making other gadgets that people got hurt using. But I also spent a lot of time on the IP side and I really did a mix of things. So I did a lot of sports type licensing work, so I represented both athletes and companies who would do licensing deals for various sports products or doing commercials for car dealerships or whatever it might be. And then I also did a lot of entertainment work on the sort of music side of things, on both sides, both for plaintiffs and defendants. But I did a lot of counseling work as well, working with bands and musicians trying to make it in the industry or trying to enforce their rights in the industry.

Ryan Vacca:

And so it was really kind of a mix, but I really enjoyed that because I got to do new stuff all the time. And I liked working on sort of big, important matters in the early kind of early to mid 2000's when all the file sharing litigation was going on. I was part of that and that was really interesting to be a part of that sort of major conversation. And at the same time, I loved working with sort of small time up and coming artists, whether they be screenwriters or musicians or sculptors or whatever, because you get to work with them and get to know them and really help them achieve their dreams, so it was fun.

A. J. Kierstead:

Judging by your path after practice, you certainly found a passion for teaching. So what was that journey like?

Ryan Vacca:

So I practiced for a few years and then my now wife, we were engaged at the time, she had a fellowship in New York City working for the health department there. And at the time, I'd started writing when I was in practice. I had started publishing some articles, law review articles and the like, and I was starting to think, what do I like best about practice? I enjoy practicing, but what's the best part of it? And I really enjoyed when I was in the library, sort of researching the minutia of some particular topic and then sometimes it would turn into a law review article and that I found really, really enjoyable.

Ryan Vacca:

At the same time, I had a client, actually, he was an entertainer and he was teaching a class in a community college and he called me up one day and he said, "Would you be interested in giving a guest lecture on sort of the basics of copyright law and the importance of having a lawyer for those in the entertainment world?" I said, "Sure, I'd be happy to do that." So I show up at the class and it was a two hour class or something like that and it was fantastic. I loved it. I was asking questions, the students were asking questions and the questions they were asking were ones that would relate to material that I was getting ready to talk about, so I could tell that they were making the connections to everything. And so at that point, I thought to myself, well, I seem to really like teaching, and I think I did it as a second semester, he invited me back and I said, "Yeah, I seem to enjoy being in the classroom and I really enjoy publishing. Maybe the academic route is for me."

Ryan Vacca:

Meanwhile, my wife is in New York, or fiancee at the time, who was in New York. And so I decided maybe I'll go and I'll do an LLM, and so I applied and ended up enrolling at NYU Law School to pursue my LLM in intellectual property. And also of course to be with my then wife. She's still my wife, but to be with, she was then my fiancee and is now my wife. But anyway, we could be together and I could also pursue my LLM. Would give me some time to write and to publish and sort of post some more and kind of get my foot in the door that way. So I did that.

Ryan Vacca:

And then at the conclusion of the LLM, I applied, I think literally all over the country, for teaching positions and ended up taking a one year visiting position at the University of Oregon Law School. And so we moved from New York to Oregon, and that was sort of how I kicked off my academic career at U of O. That was a great experience. I finished up my year there. Went to University of Denver for another visiting position for a year and then left to join the University of Akron where I was for about seven years before I joined UNH.

A. J. Kierstead:

Why UNH? Why do you feel like it was a good fit here?

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah, I mean, UNH had always been on my radar as one of the leaders in intellectual property and when the opportunity arose to join the school, it really was an easy decision, because it had such a stellar reputation for being known in the IP community as, this is one of the small handful of schools that are really known for intellectual property. And I was very enthusiastic about having lots of ... I had IP colleagues at my former school, but to have so many here that were doing so many different things and were so well regarded, it was really a great opportunity that I couldn't couldn't pass up.

A. J. Kierstead:

You spent some time traveling while you're at UNH too, namely to Australia and China. I mean, what were those experiences like teaching abroad?

Ryan Vacca:

They were fantastic. I'm sad that the pandemic came about because it really interrupted my international travels, but I love doing that. So yeah, the first summer after I was here, I went to Melbourne, Australia and taught at Swinburne University Law School and I taught a course on United States IP law to a handful of Australian students, and it was great because it was fun because it was a completely different sort of teaching environment. And the students were really, like UNH, the Swinburne students also had a focus in IP. It's a school that's known for its IP program. And so the students were really interested in this topic. I got to learn a little bit about the Australian IP system, because we could do a little bit of kind of comparative work and have those types of discussions. And so that was really a lot of fun. Plus, I got to spend a month in Australia and that was also pretty cool.

Ryan Vacca:

Also, I went to China. I went Wuhan, China. I guess was 2019 maybe, and taught a course there on sort of hot topics in US IP law. And so it was a short, kind of condensed course. Again, the students were really interested in IP. That's what they were studying at Wuhan. And it was a blast. That was my first trip to China and got to really see just a completely different culture, which was a lot of fun and get to connect with students who were passionate about learning about IP law which was great.

A. J. Kierstead:

Is there a difference in the way the students want to learn versus these three countries?

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah. So in the US the most was in the US generally, the classroom discussions are very dynamic, that it was a lot of back and forth between the professor and the students, a lot of calling on the students to answer questions and to think deeply about the materials. In Australia, it's kind of funny. So when I got there, I really just kind of assumed that that was the norm there. And so I started teaching the way that I teach in the US, and I caught the students, I think, a little off guard, because as I later found out, the model there is more or less, it was just sort of a, they call it a talk and chalk. The professor just gets up and just lectures for an hour and a half or however long the class is and then leaves, and then everybody comes back the next week and you'd lecture again and that was it.

Ryan Vacca:

And so I think they were a little shocked at first, but by the end, I think they really liked it. I asked them, because I had lunch with the Dean at the time and he was telling me that they were a little shocked. So I talked to them about it. And by the end, they liked it. They said, "Oh, we're learning more, we're thinking sort of more deeply about the material and we can understand it better." So they came around to it.

Ryan Vacca:

In China, it was very much just a lecture approach, because there were sort of varying levels of English language proficiency in the class. So there were some students who were perfectly fluent in English, others struggled a little bit more. So it was going to be more difficult to have kind of a dialogue. And also because there were so many sort of topics, some were kind of advanced topics, it would be a challenge to do it that way. So that was more just a straight lecture format, but it was still fun.

A. J. Kierstead:

I'm surprised by the mix of topics you write about. How do you balance the realm of IP and tech with judicial practices in American law?

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah. They seem like there's no connection there. Yeah. You're writing about genetically modified seams and 3D printing, and then talking about whether or not that the federal court system needs more judges. There is a connection. And the connection is that one of the first pieces that I wrote, probably about a decade ago now, was on the federal circuit, which is the court of appeals that hears basically all of the patent cases. So I wrote this article, looking at the federal circuit and what it was doing when it would sit on [inaudible 00:16:27], when the entire court would get together to hear a case, as opposed to just a three judge panel.

Ryan Vacca:

And so I wrote this article and it turned out to be fairly significant and influential. And from that, one of my co-authors that I do the general judicial administration work with, he and I started working together on sort of thinking about a similar type idea in the copyright and trademark space. So we started working on that and as we did it, we realized that there was a much bigger story to tell about judicial administration generally. And so we sort of put the copyright and trademark piece on the back burner and decided to write this sort of huge article on judicial administration. And so we finished that. That was published last year, and it's also had a really terrific effect and people have certainly taken notice of that. Once we sort of did that and laid the foundation, we've now come back and we're actually in the middle of writing the article that we set out to write probably about seven years ago on copyright and trademark. So we have a draft of that that's coming along. So they are connected, just they're connected via a circuitous route.

A. J. Kierstead:

It's more of your passion for writing and scholarship, it seems like, really drives you.

Ryan Vacca:

Yeah, I like to look at problems and try to solve them. I mean, that's what lawyers are generally doing and that's what engineers generally do as well. So I guess my background coming back to where we started about computer science and law, there's a lot of similarities there. So what I'm trying to do is figure out what problems exist and how can we solve them in a way that makes sense.

A. J. Kierstead:

What's the future hold for Ryan Vacca?

Ryan Vacca:

That is a good question. Hope that I'll have the opportunity again, once the pandemic is over, to do more international traveling and to be able to just speak with students from all over the world to talk about IP and their countries and in the US and elsewhere. My goals with respect to sort of my scholarship, I have a lot of projects lined up with respect to judicial administration and how it fits in with the sort of the IP context as well, trying to do some reforms of the federal judiciary. The discussion has started in Washington DC and I've been fortunate enough to play a minor role in some of those discussions. And so hopefully that will continue and we'll be able to make some real change.

A. J. Kierstead:

Thanks for listening to Profiles, a special series of the legal impact presented by UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. To help spread word about the show, please be sure to subscribe and comment on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple, Google, and Spotify.