The Idea Wars

The recent patent war between Apple vs Samsung has stirred up the continuing discussion of the idea economy.  There have been many lawsuits around intellectual property, but a nice bookend to the Apple vs Samsung trial would be the lawsuit between Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook vs. the Winklevoss twins of Harvard Connection.  These are two extremes on the spectrum of the Idea Wars:  patented software vs business concepts.

Both of these have the potential of stifling long-term innovation and collaboration because in the end, the Idea Wars are more about profit than they are about protecting ideas.


Innovator’s Dilemma

In Apple vs. Samsung, the battle was over documented patents for features for mobile devices.  It really came down to who can prove who invented what first and were there actual documentation to prove it.  Both parties are claiming rights to their innovations.

One could argue that patents protect intellectual property, and therefore allows freedom to innovate without danger of intellectual theft. (Open source, to a degree, has shown how open collaboration can inspire as much innovation as protection of intellectual property, but that’s a different blog.)

The problem is patent trolls. Patent trolls have become the mercenaries in the Idea Wars.  They are opportunists just waiting for someone to create some code that would violate one of their patents.  Patent trolls are not interested in innovation.  They are interested in profit.

Imagine having to check every line of code you write against a patent database, and then having to apply for a patent for every line of code you write.  Is that progress?  Is that pushing innovation forward?


The Facebook Effect

The Facebook vs Harvard Connection battle is a little different. Although email communications were used during litigation, the lawsuit was not about code; it was about the idea itself.

Coming up with a new startup idea is easy. Coming up with a unique and sustainable startup idea is not.  Launching a unique and sustainable startup idea is even harder.

Founders could try to get free advice from fellow startup founders and (if they’re lucky) from a VC mentor, but they still run into the problem of ownership should they ever launch.  And since many VCs are reluctant to sign NDAs (as they should), protecting your unique sustainable idea becomes even more difficult, hence the rise of stealth startups.

This problem becomes more problematic at hackathons where there typically aren’t any formal agreements on intellectual property rights.  Some teams have resorted to bringing their own NDAs to hackathons for this exact reason.

Because of the Facebook case, many founders are now (or at should be) leary of sharing ideas with colleagues, even friends. The Facebook case, in this sense, has stifled innovation and collaboration, not improve it.


Just Add Water
It used to be that one had to be a programming ninja and have access to expensive servers in order to launch an online business. Inspired by books like “4 Hour Work Week” and “$100 Startup,” entrepreneurs can literally launch an online business within an hour by utilizing a few simple SaaS solutions.

With the barrier to entry being so low, startups are popping up faster, and products are flooding the market faster.  In some cases, founders are able to get VC funding just by pitching an idea, and presenting a mockup built with SaaS tools.  They literally get funding with just an idea.

Having worked for the Lean Startup Machine, I have seen multiple instances of multiple people in multiple cities come up with similar ideas for their MVP, even though none of them had ever met one another.  Can these people sue each other for their MVP ideas?  How does that jive with the lean startup philosophy?  Will this inspire people to share ideas or stifle collaboration?


Future War

Apple, Samsung, and Facebook are all global brands.  Internet startups are global enterprises that have no boundaries other than the government regulations that govern them. As the world becomes more connected, the Idea Wars will persist.  Some will be fought in the courts, while others will be fought in the arena of public opinion.

As stated above, like most wars, the Idea Wars will mostly be about profit. The potential causalities will be innovation and collaboration, the very thing that intellectual property rights were suppose protect in the first place.

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