Openness Verses Intellectual Property

Never ask a hairdresser if you need a haircut. And never ask a lawyer if you need to protect your ideas.

Intellectual property (IP) is often the first thing people want to discuss when exploring open innovation. It’s something we at 100%Open know quite a bit about and we have developed a range of tools to effectively manage IP (e.g. innovation airlocks). IP is also something I have first hand experience of with a few patents, trademarks and copyrighted material to my name accumulated over the years.

So when Nico Macdonald asked me to talk about intellectual property and innovation to his current class of students at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design last week, it forced me to think a bit harder about what I believe is important about the role of IP which I summarise as follows:

  1. Ideas = Worthless. Ideas are worthless because there is never, ever a shortage of them. However as long as they remain unrealised then they have no intrinsic value. That’s not to say they aren’t important. Good ideas are the lifeblood of all innovation but they almost never appear in flash of individual inspiration. Rather they evolve over time through conversation, iteration, combination and collaboration. That’s what open innovation is all about and requires business models and IP frameworks that are much more agile and flexible that what currently exists.
  2. Creativity = Copying. Copying is at the heart of all creativity and innovation. By which we don’t mean plagiarism. Passing off somebody else’s work as your own does happen and is both lazy and wrong. However it does not happen as often as most people fear. It is actually quite hard to copy somebody else’s idea without changing it somehow. And taking somebody else’s ideas and incorporating them with your own to create something new is what creativity and innovation is all about. We live in a strange time of opportunism where Pharrell Williams is sued by the Marvin Gaye estate because of the similarities between two songs. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and has been at the heart of all creative endeavour throughout history. The sooner we realise that and unleash it rather than restrict it the better.
  3. Openness = Protection. There are times when you perhaps have created something brand new and need some time to explore further, in which case investing in acquiring the intellectual property rights to your idea. This is a worthwhile investment of time and money. However by sharing your work publicly through a multiplicity of channels then there is a documented and time stamped record of who created what and when. It makes it much harder for your competitor to copy you without credit because it’s plain for all to see what they are doing. So give to get, and share to protect.

Three sectors that are changing fast and experimenting with new approaches to intellectual property include the following:

  • Automotive and Transportation – A few years ago Tesla decided to give away all of their patents for free, with the stated ambition to grow the electric vehicle market. Today, Tesla is now valued to be worth more than Ford, despite selling 80x fewer cars. Ford, like all of the big auto players are fighting back, and have their own exciting strategy which includes moving away from designing products (i.e. cars) towards delivering Mobility as a Service, which is much harder to protect and control by traditional means.
  • Toys and Consumer Goods – LEGO own one of the classic patents for their original 4×2 brick. They have successfully and rigorously enforced their IP over the years. And yet it had one of it’s most successful new product launches with Mindstorms as a result of their customers inadvertently infringing their copyright. With time this has lead them to creating a hugely successful and systematic way to engage with externally generated products through the LEGO Ideas community.
  • Banking and Finance – Swiss banking is famous for it’s secrecy. But global banks like UBS are realising that the world of financial services is being disrupted by new technology and they cannot anticipate every twist and turn in an uncertain world. So they have no choice but to open up and embrace the start-up ecosystem through initiatives such as The UBS Future of Finance Challenge.

As it stands most investment in intellectual property exists to make lawyers or corporations wealthy. Most smaller and innovative companies are better off by being simply faster, more creative and noisier.

In our experience, if you want to remain globally competitive then the goal must always be to strive to continually create value things, and to build genuinely reciprocal relationships. Of course it is useful to get lots of advice, including legal advice, along the way. And always be thinking about creating a portfolio of tangible and intangible assets along the way. But trust your instincts on what you really need to protect and give the rest away.

In summary, instead of the traditional expensive and slow process of protecting your ideas, openness is often the best way to both defend and attack a new market when launching new products and services.

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