Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Bake Your Own Pie

Recently I was lecturing a group of high-level Chinese executives, when one asked me: “What do you think of plagiaristic innovation?” Before I could answer, he went on to explain that for China to “catch up,” he felt it needs to have innovation of any kind – even what he called "plagiaristic" innovation.

Don’t worry. I’m not about to rehearse the well-worn arguments about the protection of intellectual property: incentives for continued innovation, just rewards for investors who back authentic creativity, quality guarantees for consumers of branded products, and the like. Nor am I going down the “information must be free” path – indignantly advocating “free as in free speech (not free beer),” “stick it to the man” (the artist is not getting the payments anyway), or the “hackers’ code of ethics.” No, here I’m talking about something else.

My point here is about what “innovation” means. Debates about intellectual property, stealing, and plagiarism are all about who owns the pie. That question is very important, and is obscured when patent “trolls” flood the system with complaints, or when plagiarists masquerade as innovators. But another important point often gets lost in the fray:

Innovation is not about fighting over the pie; it is about baking a new pie.

For example, hybrid vehicles hit the worldwide market starting in 1999 and 2000, and within a few years an echo of patent litigation followed – escalating in 2003. The big car makers battled over who invented what, sometimes with each other and sometimes with small firms, everyone claiming a piece of the pie. Meanwhile, also in 2003 but with far less fanfare, Elon Musk and his team of co-founders created Tesla, the forward-looking innovator that has changed the game in the automobile industry. The noisy pie fights in 2003 were over hybrids; the profound innovations of 2003 were quietly happening at Tesla.

Pie fights extend to all walks of business life, not just battles over intellectual property. For instance, the so-called “browser wars” between Netscape and Microsoft were at their peak in 1998, following Microsoft’s integration of its Internet Explorer browser into its ubiquitous operating system. Advocates of competition howled, and defenders of Microsoft replied with talk of “seamless technology” and “complementarities”. Also in 1998, but unknown to most people at the time, PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google – the company that would change the game so thoroughly that we would soon forget about those early browser wars. The noisy pie fights of 1998 were the browser wars; the great innovation of 1998 was quietly taking shape at the newborn Google.

"Wait," you are saying. "After innovating, innovators need to defend their creation." Of course. Take QualComm, for example. That company has an unparalleled track record of continued innovation in wireless technology. As a result, its intellectual property has turned out to be extremely valuable. It has of course defended that property against plagiarists; it owes that to its shareholders. But QualComm transformed its industry by innovating - never mistaking defending IP for creating new, valuable technologies.

All around us, we see real innovators at the cutting edge of knowledge. Have a conversation with my son Burton Barnett, pictured here doing science, and you won't hear about pie fights; you'll hear about amazing new developments in immunology. And similar developments are happening worldwide - in China, Europe, India, the Americas - everywhere forward-looking people are creating new knowledge. This process of innovation is key to our collective future, and it has little to do with plagiarism or pie fighting.

The lesson to innovators: Pie fights are important; we all deserve our piece of the pie. And of course even true innovators often must fight off plagiarists. But being good at pie fighting does not make you good at innovating. Innovation means baking a new pie. 

The lesson to plagiarists: Want to create something useful? Leave the other guy’s pie alone and learn to bake.


Research on the uniqueness of innovators appears in the work of Lee Fleming and Olav Sorenson, among others.