skip to content

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that Bill Cornish, Professor Emeritus and inaugural holder of the Herchel Smith Chair in Intellectual Property here at Cambridge, has passed away. We remember Bill for his pioneering work in intellectual property law and his outstanding contributions to law in its social context, his intellectual rigour, his generous and friendly character and for his amazing support to generations of students and fellow academics in their studies of intellectual property and beyond - in Cambridge, at the LSE, in numerous places in Europe and around the world.

After more than twenty years of developing intellectual property as an emerging subject at the LSE where Bill teamed up with like-minded academics such as Robin Jacobs and Richard Lloyd, he came to Cambridge in 1990. He was the inaugural holder of the Herchel Smith Chair in Intellectual Property Law from 1995 to 2004. Bill also pursued keen interests in the European dimensions of intellectual property protection and the approach taken in Civil Law jurisdictions - recognised for example by his election as Scientific Member to the (then) Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Patent, Copyright and Competition Law (now MPI for Innovation and Competition) in Munich. Bill’s global reach as a scholar is further reflected in his role as President of the international Association for Teaching and Research in Intellectual Property (ATRIP) from 1985 to 1987.

At Cambridge, he was the inaugural Director of the Law Faculty’s Centre for European Legal Studies (CELS), and played an essential role in facilitating research on intellectual property, eventually leading to our Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law (CIPIL). Bill’s immense contribution to the field of intellectual property was essential in bringing together the discrete areas of copyright and neighbouring rights on the one hand and industrial property rights on the other. He has been the lead author of many editions of Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyright, Trademarks and Allied Rights which was first published in 1981 and served as the standard text on the subject, instrumental for establishing ‘intellectual property’ as a major topic in the UK, the EU and globally. For his pioneering work, Bill was recognised by being made a member of the British Academy in 1984. Among the many other honours that Bill received, he was awarded a Cambridge LLD in 1997, was made a Bencher of Gray’s Inn in 1998, was awarded Honorary LLDs by the Universities of Edinburgh and Adelaide in 2004 and 2018 respectively and became a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 2013.

As well as being an outstanding legal academic, those of us who had the privilege of knowing Bill will remember him as an extremely kind, thoughtful and funny colleague and as a great friend and supporter. A biography of Bill, recordings of conversations with him and some lovely photos can be found in the Cambridge Squire Law Library’s Eminent Scholars Archive.

Our thoughts are with Bill’s wife Lovedy and his family.

We have already been contacted by many people who wished to share their memories of Bill. If you have messages of condolence, tributes or memories of Bill please do record them below, and we will compile and publish them in due course (photographs can be sent for inclusion to


"Bill was a hero of mine. I got into IP because of him, more specifically his Australian-ness, his charm and his fantastic textbook, “Intellectual Property” full of fearless, pithy views on the policy of IP law and its proper scope. Bill was an inspiration to anyone coming from the outside, worried they might not fit the mould. I’m sure he was responsible for the large number of Antipodeans who mysteriously practise IP in London and have made it their home. My deepest condolences to his family. " (Simon Malynicz QC)

"A kind and enormously accomplished scholar in so many fields, whose legacy will long continue — he is missed by so many whose lives he touched. Condolences to his family on their and our loss." (Anon)

"I first met Bill in 1981 at Adelaide Law School, where I was commenting on a paper of his on passing off. I met him for the last time in 2012 on the occasion of his donation of his intellectual property collection to the Adelaide Law Library which the Law Librarian said represented the equivalent of 70 percent of the Law Library’s annual book-buying budget. This gesture typified Bill’s support for intellectual property research and teaching. Possibly because of his Australian origin, Bill pioneered a comparative approach to intellectual property scholarship. He was one of the founding fathers of intellectual property teaching in Europe and he was unfailingly helpful to scholars around the world." (Anon)

"This is very sad news indeed. My condolences to Bill's wife and family in their loss. My work in IP was entirely due to the publication of his 1981 textbook, the basis on which I was able to introduce the teaching of IP in QUB in 1982. I shall always be grateful for Bill's encouragement and help at various points in the years that followed. Both in IP and in legal history, he was an inspiration." (Norma Dawson, Queen's, Belfast)

"I must be among the earliest PhDs on classic copyright who were supervised by Bill Cornish which was awarded in 1976 by the LSE. I could not have asked for a better supervisor. Kindly and painstaking, his gentle guidance was of enormous help to me. The result was the basis on which I built my career. To Bill I shall always be hugely grateful." (Gavin McFarlane)

"Thank you Bill for your friendship and support over the years. Rest well - you will be much missed." (Charlotte Waelde)

"Professor Cornish was a remarkable person - a true pioneer of IP law teaching and scholarship, and a very kind man. He leaves a wonderful legacy. I offer my condolences to his family and friends." (Dr Luke McDonagh, LSE)

"Very sad to hear about Bill. I still remember our conversation about the relationship between intellectual property law and world trade law, and his talk was so kind and nice. It's a big loss for CIPIL, but his influence is long-lasting. May his soul rest in peace." (Ge Chen, Durham Law School)

"He was an amazing person who always supported students from around the world." (Dr Indunil Abeyesekere, Sri Lanka)

"Prof Cornish was a wonderful teacher. His ability to explain the complexities of intellectual property law and place the subject in a principled context was second to none. It was a real privilege to have been taught by him. My sincere condolences to Prof Cornish's family and colleagues. He will be greatly missed." (Kathryn Pickard )

"Bill Cornish was an exceptionally generous and kind-hearted man with a great sense of humour. Many students and younger academics have greatly benefited from his advice and support over the years. He will be truly missed." (Christoph Antons, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

Bill will be sorely missed. His contributions to legal history alone were enough to fill more than one career. ‘Law and Society in England, 1750-1950’ was a pioneering text that opened up new contextual approaches to the subject and inspired a generation of scholars. I benefited directly from his acuity, knowledge and generous support as his doctoral student. He had a remarkable ability to find time for his students, while pursuing an extraordinary array of work and activities, all with great modesty. This generosity and kindness remained for long after I left and well into his supposed retirement. Visits to Cambridge will not be the same. I will miss his wry commentary and companionship and remember him with immense gratitude. Dr Philip Hander, School of Law, University of Manchester

A tribute to our dear, late colleague Bill Cornish. I knew Bill for nearly a quarter of a century through our joint involvement in the British Law Centre at Warsaw University. Bill was the founding academic director and long the guiding force behind this venture, launched in 1992 just after the end of the communist period. For his leadership, Bill was very appropriately awarded the honour of C.M.G. by the Queen. My first visit to the Sir David Williams building (in the late 1990s) was to be interviewed by Bill for a lecturing post at the Warsaw centre, my first academic job. I have many happy memories of Bill in Cambridge, in Warsaw, and at mooting competitions in cities all over Central and Eastern Europe. He will be dearly missed. But as with his towering scholarship in intellectual property law, Bill's contribution to legal education across the formerly communist countries of Europe lives on. Jonathan Morgan, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

I first met Bill at a number of CIPIL events I was taking part in following my arrival in Cambridge in 2013. Bill’s enthusiasm and camaraderie shone through all these encounters, were truly infectious and added so much to the positivity of CIPIL activities. Despite working in rather different areas, he showed a real intellectual interest in data protection (and this intellectual capaciousness and curiosity is something which I’m sure others also experienced). Bill remained very actively engaged in CIPIL until not long before the Covid crisis disrupted all our lives. He leaves a great hole in CIPIL and will be sorely missed. David Erdos, Co-Director, Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law

I'm very sad to hear about Professor Cornish passing away. I first met Professor Cornish as a law student at the University of Latvia when I participated in the Central and Eastern European Moot Court competition where Professor Cornish was one of the judges of finalists. As our team won the competition, our prize was a week-long visit to Cambridge where Professor Cornish was a very kind and welcoming host showing us around. In fact, Professor Cornish was one of the main inspirations why I later decided to apply to Cambridge to study LL.M course. I reached out to Professor Cornish during the application process, and he was generous enough to share some tips and suggestions, for example, on how to choose a college, which was a very alien topic for me coming from a different country. During my LL.M year in Cambridge I was always glad to ran into Professor Cornish in the halls of the Faculty of Law, as he was ever smiling and encouraging. I express my deep condolences to his family, and will keep him in warm memory. Ieva Andersone, Trinity Hall 2007.

It was with great sadness that I heard of the passing of Professor Cornish, an IP superstar. He has been an eminent scholar and a huge contributor to thinking and developments in intellectual property law. It was a real privilege to be taught by him back in 1992/3 in Cambridge and he was instrumental to my becoming a practising solicitor in this field. Joel Smith, Hogan Lovells, London

Professor Cornish taught me both intellectual property and restitution at LSE while I was studying for my LLM in 1986/1987. A wonderful teacher. David Chisholm QC (New Zealand)

Professor Bill Cornish was Master when I was at Magdalene College. I want to record his generosity and kindness. RIP Paul Diamond

Bill was a huge influence on my early life as an LSE law student in the 1970s and then as his colleague at LSE in the 1980s. I was among the first group of students to take his innovative course Legal and Social Change Since 1750, co-convened with Stuart Anderson. It was a revelation, so well taught. Bill and Stuart made me understand how central the historical context is for our understanding of law. It was also Bill who, as Head of Department at the time, offered me the chance to teach at LSE in 1980 when I was asked to teach classes in English Legal System and International Law as a part-time tutor. My experience of teaching at LSE at that time led eventually to my choosing legal academia over practice. Bill was always a supportive and kind colleague, a true role model for me. In later life I also benefitted greatly from his expertise in IP for my own work on technology transfer to developing countries. He will be rightly missed but also rightly celebrated. Thank you Bill! Peter Muchlinski, Emeritus Professor of International Commercial Law, SOAS, University of London

40 years ago, childhood friends with Anna, Peter and Cecelia, Bill recognised the need in me to belong, to please and be wanted by a family as my personal one not so good. Bill was full of kindness and understanding, a true gentleman with a lovely sense of humour. No malice in the man. Rest in Peace Bill. Condolences Lovedy, Anna, Peter & Cecelia. John Zayya

Bill was a delightful colleague. His firm views, usually delivered with characteristic smile and narrowing of the eyes, were always thought-provoking and often compelling. Besides his pre-eminence in the field of IP, he was a fine legal and social historian whose Law and Society in England 1750-1950 and contributions to Volume XIII of the Oxford History of the Laws of England were both enjoyable and illuminating. As a socio-legal scholar, he directly influenced my understanding of the legal system at a formative stage in my legal education: his Pelican book The Jury was one of the books my law tutor told me to read before commencing my studies in 1972. He was a fine scholar and educator whose work helped to shape his subjects and the minds of those who studied them over many decades, and very good company; he is much missed. David Feldman

Bill Cornish was, with his wife Lovedy, a wonderful friend and his passing leaves a gap that cannot be filled. The first edition of his text on IP was transformative for me in the study of the subject, although it would be another 15 years before I actually met him. Then the extent of his interest in legal history generally as well as contemporary IP became apparent to me, and I will always remember the conversations we subsequently had on both subjects. The conversations began, however, with how to handle the emergency caused by the Edinburgh University Staff Club (where Bill was to spend the night after giving one of our named lectures) appearing to be locked and shuttered against him after a rather late and convivial night at some Edinburgh restaurant and bar. I took him in my car to my flat, mentally anxious about such matters as pyjamas and toothbrushes; Bill in the passenger seat, on the other hand, discoursed about the grandeur and history of the city we were passing through (he had a knowledge of Edinburgh from his and Lovedy's regular visits to the Festival). All ended well when we phoned the Club from my flat (no mobile phones in those far-off days) and discovered that there was a night porter who could admit Bill to his booked room and luggage! Later on, Bill was also a tremendous counsellor to SCRIPT in Edinburgh Law School, as a very active member of the advisory board, and as a supporter of the endeavours of the Centre's individual members. Wisdom and warmth were his hallmarks and he will be remembered as much for those as for his remarkable scholarship. Hector MacQueen

I met Bill as a PhD student in Munich in 2011. Over a couple of apferschroles, we debated whether under UK law film producers/directors have the exclusive right to make sequels; Bill was sceptical that they did have such a right. It is bitterly disappointing that we cannot continue this, and many other, copyright debate in the future. He will be sorely missed. Patrick Goold

Bill was a truly amazing person, not only by his sheer brilliance but most of all, his kindness, honesty, sense of humour (even in his books - I will forever remember and keep telling my students his statement in his textbook that a film crew should always add a very young author in the 4 types mandated by the term directive to get a very long copyright term), full of great advice and support. As we say in French, une personne de qualite. Thank you Bill for being such a role model and for your kindness and support. Like so many others, I am so privileged to have met you. You are much missed. My most sincerest condolences to his family and all his loved ones. Estelle Derclaye, Professor of intellectual property law, University of Nottingham